After multiple controversial officiating decisions in Sunday's playoff-shaping game between the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks, multiple executives and coaches said the NFL needs to reevaluate how it chooses and trains its officiating staff for future seasons.
Those same executives and coaches said game officials and the league missed multiple calls that helped key the Seahawks' overtime victory over the Rams that sent Seattle to Saturday's wild-card round and prevented the Detroit Lions from reaching the playoffs.
Even the NFL's competition committee is aware of what one source described to ESPN "as the worst officiated game of the year."
Another team executive not associated with either the Rams or Lions told ESPN there is "a real groundswell of unhappiness with officiating that is much deeper than I've seen and frankly, I haven't seen in this league in years."
Multiple sources told ESPN that the Rams were upset by the officiating, the Lions were bothered by it and the competition committee was frustrated by it. The calls benefited the Seahawks, hurt the Rams and ultimately impacted the Lions, who needed Seattle to lose in order to have a chance to claim the NFC's final wild-card spot.
The Lions upset the Green Bay Packers Sunday night despite having been eliminated because of Seattle's victory earlier.
One source told ESPN this week that the NFL must do a better job of screening, hiring and training its officials; the league can't have games in which teams' seasons are on the line and have questionable and impactful calls such as the ones in the Rams-Seahawks Week 18 game.
Officiating is an imperfect science, but the source said to ESPN that there should be ways to mitigate those types of mistakes.
"The Lions should be livid," one source told ESPN. "It was an awful way for them to end their season."
Nearly midway through the fourth quarter of the Los Angeles-Seattle game, officials called what some officials and coaches believed to be a questionable running into the kicker penalty on Rams defensive end and special teams player Jonah Williams, who was flagged for running into Seahawks punter Michael Dickson.
According to league rules, running into the kicker occurs when a defensive player "contacts the kicking foot of the kicker, even if the kicker is airborne when the contact occurs," or when a defensive player "slides under the kicker, preventing him from returning both feet to the ground."
The rules stipulate that running into the kicker should not be called if the defender "is pushed or blocked [causing a change of direction] into the kicker." Replays showed that Williams was pushed into Dickson, but officials called running into the kicker, giving the Seahawks a first down and enabling them to continue a fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a tying field goal.
A league official told ESPN that the official who threw the flag did not have an angle that allowed him to see Williams being blocked into Dickson.
Later, in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, Jalen Ramsey was flagged for unnecessary roughness on Geno Smith. After the flag against Ramsey, Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf poked his hand into Ramsey's face -- in clear sight of the back judge -- but was not penalized.
With 9:26 remaining in overtime, Smith came under heavy pressure and threw a pass away to his right that some said should have been intentional grounding, but wasn't called. Smith's pass landed at Seattle's 23-yard line, well short of tight end Noah Fant, who was the nearest Seahawks eligible receiver at the 35-yard line.
The league official told ESPN that game officials determined Fant was in the vicinity of Smith's pass even though his route was impacted by Quentin Lake.
Later in the overtime period, Seattle's Quandre Diggs intercepted Baker Mayfield. Replays showed that Diggs pointed at former Seahawks and current Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner, but officials did not call a taunting penalty that would have pushed back Seattle 15 yards. The Seahawks instead started their final drive at their own 36-yard line and won on Jason Myers' 32-yard field goal.
The league official told ESPN that the decision to not flag Diggs for taunting was a judgment call.
The seventh-seeded Seahawks (9-8) will face the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers (13-4) in Saturday afternoon's postseason opener. The Niners won both regular-season meetings between the NFC West rivals.
"They're pretty good," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the 49ers. "They've won 10 or 11 in a row, or something like that, and they're going to just be as high and flying as you can go.
"If you're going to do something here special at the end, you've got to beat really good teams."