Roger Goodell defends NFL officiating: Never been better

PHOENIX -- Despite several high-profile officiating controversies -- including a replayed third down in the AFC Championship Game -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday expressed support for the league's officials and the quality of their execution.

"I don't think it's ever been better in the league," Goodell said at his annual Super Bowl week news conference. "There are over 42,000 plays in a season. Multiple infractions could occur on any play. Take that out or extrapolate that. That's hundreds if not millions of potential fouls. And our officials do an extraordinary job of getting those. Are there mistakes in the context of that? Yes, they are not perfect and officiating never will be."

In the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, Kansas City ran a play on third-and-9 that ended up short of the sticks. Instead of a fourth-down punt, though, the Chiefs got to replay the down. The field judge noticed a clock error before the play and tried to run in to stop the play. He was unsuccessful and the play continued. While the Chiefs' offense ran off the field for the punt unit, officials conferred and nullified the play because of the clock issue, allowing the Chiefs to replay the prior down.

"In the championship game, that was stopped appropriately because the clock was running by an official on the field," Goodell said Wednesday. "That happens frequently in our game. That's not an unusual thing to have that happen. ... We may not agree with every TV announcer or officiating expert, but we think our officials are doing a great job. We're always going to look to our competition committee and everything else we have, how we improve our officiating, but it will never be perfect."

Later in the AFC Championship Game, there was another controversial call when Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was whistled for intentional grounding on Cincinnati's final possession, a costly penalty that backed the Bengals up to their own 10-yard line with 1:27 remaining. Former vice president of officiating for the NFL and current Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino said afterward it was an incorrect call because Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones hit Burrow as he threw the ball.

"If the quarterback starts his throwing motion, which the hand coming forward with the ball starts that motion, and then he's contacted by a defender, which impacts that motion, then you are not to call intentional grounding," Blandino said in a Twitter video posted by The 33rd Team.

"And I thought that the contact may have impacted Burrow's ability to get the ball out toward [Samaje] Perine enough to not calling grounding in that situation."

After the game, which the Chiefs won by a field goal, referee Ron Tolbert explained the call to a pool reporter.

"The quarterback was under duress, in danger of being sacked, and threw the ball into the ground," he said. "There was no eligible receiver in the area, and he had not gotten out of the pocket and thrown it beyond the line of scrimmage. So, that was a foul for intentional grounding."

The NFC Championship Game officiating crew also drew heavy scrutiny, first for awarding a catch to Philadelphia wide receiver Devonta Smith on the Eagles' opening drive. Smith's snag on fourth-and-3 hit the ground and should have been ruled incomplete, but it was ruled a catch and the 49ers didn't challenge it. Then, toward the end of the first quarter, an Eagles punt appeared to hit a SkyCam wire above the field, but officials couldn't confirm contact after watching replays and the 34-yard punt stood.

In an appearance on "The Pat McAfee Show," Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers blamed the inconsistent quality in officiating on a number of referees leaving the NFL for jobs at television networks.

"Listen, the best refs we've had in the league are on TV now," Rodgers said on Jan. 17. "They're not working in the league office. They're on TV. Gene Steratore, my favorite ref of all time. I think one of the best guys at understanding how to interact with guys and how to communicate with them, and then how to control a game without being a part of it. Gene was incredible at that, but Gene is on TV now. Why? Because they pay more."

In addition to Steratore, who works for CBS and officiated from 2003 to 2018, other former officials who transitioned to become television analysts include ESPN's John Parry, who officiated from 2000 to 2018 and was the head referee for Super Bowl LIII, and NBC's Terry McAulay, who officiated from 1998 to 2017.

When asked about Rodgers' comments Wednesday, Goodell pushed back.

"Are we losing people from the field to the booth? There are some that never even officiated on the NFL field, and so we didn't lose anyone," Goodell said. "We may have lost them from our office, but we didn't lose them from officiating on the field. Others are taking on that responsibility at the end of their careers. So, I do not think that's a factor at all. Zero."

Other notable topics Goodell discussed:

Diversity in hiring: Two Black candidates have filled head coach and general manager vacancies this hiring cycle -- Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans and Tennessee Titans GM Ran Carthon. Goodell said he sees progress but there's more work ahead for the league. He said he was pleased with the NFL's Accelerator program that introduces top minority candidates to team owners and pointed out that Carthon first met the Titans' ownership during the program in December.

Pro Bowl: Goodell said the new format of the new Pro Bowl Games was a "pivotal moment" for the NFL. He said the players loved the new format, which combined several competitions and three flag football games. He said that flag football is a priority for the NFL. He said he doesn't see the Pro Bowl returning to a tackle football game in the future.

Flex scheduling: Goodell said he wouldn't be surprised if flexible scheduling is introduced to Amazon Prime's "Thursday Night Football" package. The league has used flexible scheduling for years with NBC's "Sunday Night Football" package and ESPN's "Monday Night Football" will have flex options in the 2023 season.

Injuries: Goodell acknowledged data released by the league that concussions rose 18% from last season (149 from 126) but said that is because the league had broader definitions of the injury and that more evaluations equal more concussions. He said the league will look into how to improve helmets for players and pointed out that the data released last week also found that injuries decreased from last season (5.6%).

Commanders investigation and sale: Goodell said there continues to be no timeline for the completion of Mary Jo White's investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against owner Dan Snyder. He also said he had no update on the sale of the franchise, whose process doesn't involve the league until a sale is agreed upon.