Stung by Discord Over Officiating, the N.F.L. Puts a Coach in Charge
Stung by Discord Over Officiating, the N.F.L. Puts a Coach in Charge
Perry Fewell improved those around him in many of the stops he has made during his 35-year coaching career. Repeating the feat in his new job may be far more difficult. On Thursday, the N.F.L. announced that Fewell had become its senior vice president of officiating administration, a newly created position that will involve overseeing an often-criticized department with increasingly complex duties.
Disputes over the quality of the N.F.L.’s officiating have grown louder in recent years. Officials have tried to keep up with the increasing speed of the game and the athleticism of its players, yet every weekend, video replays, myriad camera angles and former-referees-turned-analysts amplify pressure on officials to get every call right, a virtually unattainable goal.
“When we fail in officiating, we fail the game of football, we fail the fans, the clubs, the coaches and the players,” Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president of football operations, said in an interview. “The stripes,” he said, referring to the officials, “should never be in the middle of the game.”
The complaints and confusion reached a crescendo last year, when the N.F.L. for the first time allowed coaches to challenge calls involving pass interference, which are among the most subjective in the game. The change came in response to a blown call late in the 2019 N.F.C. championship game, during which officials failed to penalize Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman for what appeared to be pass interference against a New Orleans Saints receiver.
“That dies a natural death,” Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, said in a SiriusXM interview this month. “We were trying to apply something that we’ve been wary about,” he added, “putting a totally subjective play into replay.”
The notoriety of the blown playoff call and the league’s clumsy attempt to address it illustrate the challenges of officiating the high-speed and often nuanced game of pro football, which will be under more scrutiny than ever as legalized sports gambling grows.
Vincent said the swirl of problems made him realize that the job of running the officiating department was “too large for one person,” so he split it into four parts. He hired Fewell, known as a disciplined leader, to run the department day to day and to speak with the news media, the owners, the coaches and the league’s broadcast partners.
Fewell’s job, in which he will report directly to Vincent, will mean a marked departure from the old hierarchy run by Al Riveron, a former referee. As the senior vice president of officiating the last three seasons, Riveron ran all aspects of the department, including introducing a centralized replay model, evaluating and developing officials, and explaining rules and officiating decisions to the media.
Riveron will now focus solely on the league’s replay review process. Walt Anderson, a longtime N.F.L. referee, was hired to recruit and train game-day officials. Michelle McKenna, the league’s chief information officer, will continue to oversee game-day technology.
Vincent said that Fewell’s coaching experience should help shape decisions in a department that had been run largely by referees.
Fewell’s hiring was formally announced to the 32 franchise owners as they met in a video conference and approved several rules changes, including strengthening penalties for hitting a defenseless punt returner and expanding the type of plays that are automatically reviewed to include scoring plays and turnovers negated by a foul.
None of the proposals, if approved, will change the game dramatically, a departure from recent years when a dizzying number of tweaks were made to keep up with larger and faster players and with the increasing emphasis on the passing game. That evolution forced the league to clarify even fundamental parts of the game, like the definition of a catch. Other changes were designed to offset obvious errors, like the blown call in the Rams-Saints playoff game. At times, they have led to more confusion, longer games and a growing belief that the game is excessively officiated.
Fewell, 57, will be jumping into a very different high-profile position. For the first time in decades, he will wear a suit to an office, not roam the sidelines in sneakers and a cap.
“I’ve spent a long time on the sidelines,” Fewell said in a recent interview. “I know the transition isn’t an easy one.”
Vincent was coached by Fewell in Buffalo at the end of his career, and came to know him as a successful leader. The year before Fewell arrived as the Bills defensive coordinator, the team had the 24th-best defense in the N.F.L. With Fewell at the helm, the defense ranked 10th the next season. When Fewell took the same position with the Giants in 2010, the defense was coming off a season when it ranked as one of the worst in the league. The Giants rose to 17th in their first season under Fewell, and the year after that they became Super Bowl champions.
Fewell is not the first coach to work in the league’s officiating department. Over the years, former coaches such as Joe Philbin, Jim Schwartz and Mike Singletary have worked there temporarily. Fewell, who will have a bigger role, said he hoped to improve the game by finding ways to reduce the frequency of the replay review.
“I think it has a function in a game,” he said, but “I still think the officiating should be done on the field.”
Fewell emphasized that botched calls are relatively rare. There are roughly 40,000 plays in a typical 256-game regular season. In 2019, only 417 plays, or about 1 percent, required a timeout for referees to review a play. Of those, 196 reviews resulted in a reversal of the call on the field. Of the 417 reviews, 101, or just under one-quarter, involved pass interference plays. Just 24 of those reviews resulted in a call’s reversal.
Even so, the number of reviewed calls that are overturned has been rising, to 47 percent last year, the second highest since the current review system began in 1999. Reviews receive extra attention because they tend to happen at critical junctures of a game and because commentators on TV shows and fans on social media pore over every call.
Those who know Fewell say his energy and preparation skills will serve him well.
“He is fair, he’s honest, he’s open and he’s approachable,” said Tom Coughlin, the longtime coach and executive who gave Fewell his first N.F.L. job, as a defensive backs coach in Jacksonville, and hired him again with the Giants. “Perry was always a team guy, always upbeat. There’s no ego, no question about it.”
Still, part of Fewell’s job will be the uncomfortable task of explaining officiating decisions to the news media, broadcasters and aggrieved coaches.