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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: This is why NFL officiating is broken beyond repair

| Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, 6:21 a.m.
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns slams his helmet above the Browns' Jarvis Landry to draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during the third quarter Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns slams his helmet above the Browns' Jarvis Landry to draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during the third quarter Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

It was a light-hearted, joking exchange.

There's often truth in a joke, though.

And while having fun with the WDVE morning show on Tuesday , former NFL referee turned CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore further proved one thing about the National Football League: Its officiating is in such a state of disrepair that it has become an unfixable gong show.

Steratore, a Washington County native, is going on the Pittsburgh Steelers flagship station weekly to analyze the officiating fiascos dominating NFL headlines.

A retired referee having his own weekly show? It once would've been comical to consider. The premise was even spoofed on "Saturday Night Live" in 1989.

But right now? Well, it's an absolute coup for the station. Within two weeks, the segment has become can't-miss radio.

Because, sadly, on a weekly basis, multiple story lines are emerging where games are being negatively, and severely, impacted by the amount of penalties, the inconsistency of flags and interpretations of a voluminous rule book complicated by a nauseating replay system that has backfired.

This week, the Steelers had a punt that bounced up and appeared to hit Browns player Nick Chubb in the helmet.

"All of us saw the ball hit that guy," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Why that play was not corrected, I have no idea. Ask New York."

Well, prior to Tomlin's news conference, WDVE morning show host Randy Baumann asked Steratore about it.

"Let's face it, you rewound it 100 times," Steratore joked. "You went click-by-click like the Zapruder film. Head moved, ball up. Head moved, ball up.?

Wait, isn't that the point of replay? To go "click-by-click" to get a call right if it wasn't obvious to the naked eye?

"The rules of replay have to see something completely conclusive," Steratore continued. "I know it all smells like a duck, it walks like a duck, but I've got to see it."

Let me get this straight. A former NFL ref, now hired by a league network partner to disseminate rules info, just went on air in Pittsburgh and said that "overwhelming" evidence is needed to overturn a call? And also mocked the notion of making a call based on going frame-by-frame a hundred times over?

Yo, Gene! Do the words "Jesse" and "James" mean anything to you? That's how his goal-line call went down against New England.

I know you were having a laugh, but a little awareness of the irony, please.

This is part of the issue the NFL has right now. Over the years, former zebras such as Steratore and others in the role of "rules analysts" — Mike Carey, Dean Blandino, Mike Pereira and (already in Week 1) newly hired Terry McAulay — seem to misunderstand the purpose of their job.

Fans don't just want to know why the call was made. We don't exclusively want to hear a defense of why the call was whistled or upheld by replay. We don't merely want a boilerplate explanation.

In your new role, tell us if the call was right or wrong, too. We don't need ex-officials being mouthpieces for the current officials.

We have Al Riveron for that.

The media angle is less important than the officials themselves. As evidenced by the wild inconsistency of the helmet rule in the preseason and the "falling with full body weight on the quarterback" rule in the regular season, these guys don't know what they are calling.

All they know is that if they don't call something, they are more likely to be disciplined than if they do. So when it comes to flags, "when in doubt, pull 'em out!"

And that's the biggest issue. The NFL rule book is so dense and the league has the refs so paranoid over safety issues that they are calling legal plays as penalties out of fear of repercussion.

As a result, we get incidents like the Myles Garrett penalty against Ben Roethlisberger, which Riveron later announced shouldn't have been penalized.

That drew the ire of both Tomlin and Roethlisberger. Not because of the correction of the call, but because there was no reference to the Chubb play or an apparent peel back, blindside block on Bud Dupree in the same game.

All this is leading to a slew of problems. Paranoid officials are calling penalties at the alarming rate of almost 16 per game. In the 16 games played, each had at least 10 penalties. Nine of them had 15 or more. Four of them were between 19 and 26. So, on average, teams were drawing 7.96 flags per club, per game. Only two teams (Seattle and Miami) averaged more than that last season.

These are just accepted penalties, 255 of them. That's 47 more than Week 1 last year and 69 more than Week 1 10 years ago.

Players are now also diving and trying to draw flags far more often. Look at Jarvis Landry baiting a call in that scrum with Artie Burns on Sunday. Or Roethlisberger throwing his hands up after getting pushed out of bounds on his 15-yard scramble early in the game.

The game in Cleveland, especially with Burns and Landry, got extremely chippy early because players were getting fatigued with the constant stoppages and marching backward because of innocuous penalties.

"There's tons of frustration," Steelers guard David Decastro said. "A lot of the guys are frustrated. Everyone puts a ton of energy into these games, and when there are lots of flags you don't like, it's tough."

Tough to play. And tough to watch.

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