Thought Experiment: Could The NFL Function Without Officials?

Aug 18, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; NFL referee Ken Roam calls a penalty during the second quarter of the game between the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

It looks like the NFL might be stuck with replacement officials this season. But what if we did away with officials entirely? Is there any system in which the NFL could function without them? Here, we do our best to come up with one.

During this NFL preseason, the replacement officiating crews have emerged as a major talking point. They are screwing up. They miss blatant holds. They see acts of pass interference that aren't there. They call Atlanta "Arizona." But hey, I'm sure it's going to take a little while to get into form. After a while, they'll



It seems as though these are the officials we'll be stuck with all season, and that's a predicament so dire that I started wondering about alternatives. Even the radical ones. Like this one:

Could the NFL function without officiating crews?

This is an absurd and unasked-for premise, but I'm going to try to "tackle" (football term) this challenge as well as I can ... which might not be all that well, but hypothetical experiments are not really about success anyway. If you're not up for this, you might want to leave now. I'll understand.

So let's get to work on imagining the best possible official-free NFL scenario. And while we're at it, let's say "no commissioner/committee" either, since that's a cop-out. This is the crux of this whole experiment:

Teams must make and agree on calls completely on their own.

In the absence of officials, teams that play each other must reach agreements on every on-field ruling. There's nobody to whistle the ball dead, so players will have to declare themselves down. Offensive line coaches will have to self-report holding calls. Et cetera.

Our goal is to incentivize this without compromising the league's competitive nature. One incentive seems obvious right off the bat:

Either you play the game, or the game dies.

OK, let's imagine the worst-case -- and, incidentally, most likely -- scenario of this experiment. It's Week 1. The Titans are playing the Patriots. On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Jake Locker finds receiver Kenny Britt 40 yards down the left side, but the play is broken up. Titans coach Mike Munchak claims pass interference. "No it wasn't," says Patriots boss Bill Belichick. With no mediating or governing party to settle the matter, they just keep arguing.

Maybe one of them gives in after a few minutes for the sake of keeping the game going. Or maybe they both stall, and simply decide to wait each other out.

What they have forgotten here is that putting on a show in the first place is more important than the actual result of the game. The fans are leaving their seats. The folks at home are switching to another channel. Both these teams have now gained a reputation for bad football.

For this to matter, the structure of the NFL must be completely rebuilt.

There's no way the NFL can sell a Sunday full of games that are full of arguing and stalling, and its teams will have to realize this pretty quickly if they want to survive. And remember, there's no commissioner or committee to save the day. These teams must, on their own, come up with a system that encourages "good football."

This is how they do it: they're allowed to choose their schedules. Suppose the Titans play the Chiefs, and although they lose, the game goes relatively well. The coaches don't filibuster, the give-and-take on calls is fair enough, and the game brings in viewers. These two teams have now established a sort of rapport with one another, so they're more likely to choose to play one another in the future.

The more teams that are willing to play you, the more chances you have of winning. If you gain a reputation for "bullying" your opponent, you might win the games you play, but before long you won't be playing any at all. Maybe your uncooperative nature will get you a 3-0 record, but three wins won't win you the division, and they won't bring in a lot of revenue, either.

This is how a football game will have to play out for a team to be successful:

Compromise. These two teams will have to sink or swim together, because from a financial perspective, losing a game is vastly preferable to a stalled, unwatchable game that ends in a no-decision.

You will have to find an opponent that you trust well enough not to make frivolous disputes or refuse to acknowledge indisputable replay evidence. There will always be borderline calls, but you and your opponent must come up with a system of resolving these. Perhaps you agree upon coin flips to settle them. Perhaps you take turns letting the other team have a borderline call go their way.

And perhaps, if you trust this team well enough, you're fine with giving them some extra leeway. For example, suppose their play clock expired before their quarterback snapped the ball. By declining to enforce the play clock, you're issuing a message of goodwill, and an implication that down the road, they might do you a solid.

This elevates the sport, at least the way you and your opponent play it, to an art of sportsmanship. It's still a highly competitive affair, it's simply a more sophisticated one.

The more friends you make with other teams, the more of your 16-game schedule you'll be able to fill. This is how "good football" is incentivized.

Problem: this "choose your own schedule" format could very easily be abused.

Indeed. Suppose, for example, that the 49ers emerge as the best team in the league. They stand as the clear favorite in just about any game they could possibly play. So after a while, the rest of the league shuts them out. Teams choose not to play them anymore.

And suddenly, despite playing "good football" and being a decent team to work with, the 49ers find themselves in the same plight as the no-gooders who aren't invited to games because they refuse to play along.

Solution: weighted wins.

The precise mathematics would be better calculated by someone smarter than I am, but a weighted win system would incentivize teams to play these 49ers, rather than shutting them out. Any team that plays them and beats them receives, say, 1.5 wins.

This ensures that the "honorable" powerhouses will still be able to play. On the other side of the coin, suppose the Patriots are very good but are also known for "bad football." Even if a win over them would mean two wins, you still wouldn't play them, because you're especially likely to have to abandon the game or take a loss.

Problem: all this might go out the window once the playoffs come around.

Suppose those Titans and Chiefs, who were so friendly in previous affairs, meet in the AFC Championship Game. With a Super Bowl berth on the line, it seems as though it would be worth betraying an alliance to win this game.

Solution: collusion via a network of alliances.

Over time, a web of alliances forms. The Titans are friendly with the Chiefs, who are also friendly with the Bengals and Jets, both of whom are friendly with the Ravens and Jaguars. At some point, all these individual alliances will snap into a single coalition.

Perhaps these political maneuverings result a single, 24-team NFL coalition, with the other teams existing as scattered, independent no-gooders. Or perhaps we'll end up with multiple coalitions of 10 or so teams. Maybe a chunk of one coalition will secede into its own.

Regardless, once these conglomerates are formed, collusion is practicable. Let's imagine what happens if the Chiefs decide to pull some shit:

It's tied at 31 with a minute left in the fourth quarter. This is the most crucial drive in Chiefs history. Matt Cassel hits Dwayne Bowe 30 yards downfield at the Titans' 8-yard line.

Titans coach Mike Munchak looks at the replay. Bowe is clearly, clearly out of bounds. His left foot is almost completely on the white when he makes the catch. Absolutely no honest observer would say otherwise, but Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel tells his men to go upfield. "It's a catch," he says. Total bullshit.

Munchak can, of course, refuse to accept any further outcome in play until the correct call is made. But this leads to a stalemate, which, on a national stage, is brand suicide. The Titans must uphold a reputation of making sure the game continues, even if they end up on the short end.

So the Titans do, and unfortunately, that is their only real prize. The Chiefs kick a chip-shot field goal and go to the Super Bowl.

HOWEVER! The Chiefs will pay hard for this, because the Titans are a member of a 13-team coalition. As a consequence of this brazen, dishonorable act, this coalition imposes a boycott on the Chiefs. So suddenly, nearly half the league is off the board for Kansas City. Maybe the other half is made up of a second coalition that will, for some reason, overlook this treachery, but more than likely, the Chiefs will find themselves in the shit, left to play a scattering of "bad football" independents.

And as we established, being left with nothing but "bad football" opponents is practically a death sentence.

This sounds dirty.

Yes, it does. The politics figure to get filthy after a time, but in the absence of external authority, these dealings are the only tools we have of establishing some means of order.

And perhaps just as importantly, they create an extra dimension to football: political intrigue. All of a sudden, all the dirty laundry is out in the open.

Imagine watching that AFC Championship Game with a bar full of Chiefs fans. One line of conversation -- "the Chiefs need to look for the big play here" -- is complemented with another: "the Chiefs should give in to the Titans on this one." Everyone in the bar watches as Crennel motions his team forward, despite the indisputable video evidence. Half the crowd is elated: "we're going to the Super Bowl!"

The other half, however, is lost in despaired rage: "We're done for years. We're finished. This is horrible. The Coalition is going to fall hard on us. Maybe we can convince the Jaguars to leave with us? Maybe the Broncos? Oh God. We're boned."

And now we, the fans, have even more to wonder and argue and project. I think that's nothing but good.

This whole thing is stupid, because ______ .

Entirely possible. I didn't study game theory or anything. I'm not a poli sci major. Hell, I ain't even go to college, really. So this is where you come in. Please, if you're so inclined, use the comments to poke holes in this model, propose alternatives, separate what works from what doesn't.

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