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NFL, NFLRA discussing new suspension procedures

Officials, including side judge Keith Washington, right, discuss a play late in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Detroit Lions that was ruled a touchback after Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson fumbled and the ball went out of bounds in the end zone, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 13-10. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)


Many officials reacted with surprise to last week’s decision to suspend side judge Rob Vernatchi with pay for his role in last Monday night’s clock error and to reassign back judge Greg Wilson away from a prime-time game for his role in the prior Monday night’s illegal bat blunder. The next time it happens, they shouldn’t be surprised.

And it likely will be happening again.

Although the NFL would say that accountability applies to mistakes made in all games regardless of when they are played, the sense among the folks in black-and-white stripes is that, if you screw up in a prime-time game, the consequences will be greater.

The fact that neither Vernatchi nor Wilson lost money likely goes a long way toward insulating the NFL from any problems that could arise under the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Referees Association. The next step will be revising the CBA to allow for a more aggressive approach when it comes to big mistakes made by officials.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the league already has commenced discussions with the NFLRA regarding a system of progressive discipline for 2016, which would entail both paid and unpaid suspensions in response to certain errors.

Whether it’s a mistake in the perception of the events on the field, the enforcement of a penalty, the application of a rule, subjective decision-making (like pass interference or holding), or administrative matters such as the operation of the clock, the goal would be to have a formula that applies to all officials, allowing the NFL to do something more than downgrade the officials during their weekly post-game evaluations.

While the grading process becomes a carrot for postseason assignments, the league is looking for a more immediate stick than makes the official no longer an official after a given season. And that makes sense. Players get benched and cut; coaches get fired. The accountability for officials is far more subtle and discreet, and in many cases never noticed.

The suspension of Vernatchi and the reassignment of Wilson makes clear that the league’s approach already has changed. The next question becomes whether a more structured system of paid and unpaid suspensions will be implemented for 2016 -- and how sweeping it will be.

For the NFL, there continues to be a strong incentive to not make officiating errors seem to be too glaring or commonplace. Widespread suspensions would do that, eventually renewing and invigorating calls for full-time, year-round officials.

Regardless, the goal remains getting it right. And the NFL needs to do whatever it takes to get all calls right.