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NFL officiating not up to playoff standards, and other wild-card thoughts

The New Orleans Saints have a lot of skilled position players, which is a stark contrast from the Carolina Panthers.

Officiating was not up to playoff standards this weekend. The NFL needs to fix it.

The league likes to say that the best officials work the playoffs, but that’s not exactly true. There are 17 officials at each position (17 referees, 17 field judges, etc.) and the league typically assigns 10 of them to playoff games. So if you’re the 10th-best referee in a field of 17, you’re hardly “the best,” and yet you’ll get a playoff assignment.

The NFL also doesn’t allow first-year officials to work playoff games, so if the best field judge in the NFL in 2017 was a first-year field judge, he didn’t get a playoff assignment. And the NFL spreads around the best assignments, so an official can’t work consecutive Super Bowls even if he’s the best in the league two years in a row.

All of this means that we weren’t really seeing the best officials on the field over the weekend. And it showed.

Do I need to re-hash the terrible job referee Jeff Triplette and his crew did to kick off the playoffs on Saturday afternoon? Just read what former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira had to say. He called the officiating “horrible” in that game.

But that was far from the only game. We had a referee announce that it was fourth down when it was actually first down -- and never turn on his microphone to correct his mistake, although thankfully the crew got it straightened out before the next play. We had a blindside block called a hit to the head and neck area when it was actually shoulder-to-chest. We had the officials forget about a 10-second runoff until the last second, when thankfully an alternate official ran from the sideline onto the field to alert the on-field referee. We had a couple of absolutely terrible spots award first downs when there clearly should not have been first downs. We never had a replay review of the key Panthers interception in the final minutes of their loss to the Saints.

There are always going to be officiating mistakes, but is it too much to ask that the NFL put the best officials on the field for the playoffs? The solution is simple: Only the four best officials at each position should work the playoffs. They should each work one wild-card game, then one divisional-round game. Then the two best should work the conference championships, and the best should work the Super Bowl. None of this “everyone gets a trophy” style of officiating assignments for the 10th-best referee. If you want to reward a longtime veteran ref with a postseason assignment but he wasn’t in the Top 4 at his position, let him work the Pro Bowl.

Until the NFL puts the best officials on the field in the playoffs, expect to see more ugly playoff weekends.

Here are my other thoughts from the wild card round:

Sean McDonough needling Jon Gruden was hilarious. The most entertaining action of the weekend was in the booth in Kansas City, where ESPN’s McDonough repeatedly referred to Gruden as the next coach of the Raiders, and Gruden repeatedly claimed nothing was official. I don’t know why Gruden felt the need to mislead ESPN’s viewers (the Raiders announced shortly after the game that Gruden’s hiring was, in fact, official), but I’m glad McDonough made Gruden sweat.

Matt Ryan is money in the playoffs. I don’t think we talk enough about how well Ryan has played in the postseason. After Saturday’s win over the Rams, Ryan has the second-highest postseason passer rating (minimum 250 attempts) in NFL history. Only Kurt Warner is higher.

The Jaguars’ defense is legit. I know everyone is going to talk all day about how terrible that Bills-Jaguars game was, but the reality is the Jaguars’ defense was phenomenal. Holding any NFL opponent to three points is hard to do. Don’t sleep on the Jaguars pulling an upset in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Kareem Hunt needed more carries. Second-guessing Andy Reid after a playoff disappointment almost feels like piling on at this point, but I have a real problem with Hunt, the Chiefs running back who led the NFL in rushing in 2017, only getting 11 carries in the loss to the Titans. As the Chiefs’ offense really picked up down the stretch, following Reid handing off play calling to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, it was with Hunt as a workhorse: In Nagy’s first three games calling plays, Hunt had 25, 24 and 29 carries. Only giving Hunt 11 carries was a mistake that both Reid and Nagy should answer for.

The new concussion rules weren’t followed for Cam Newton. The league says it is discussing the matter with the Panthers’ medical staff, but what’s to discuss? Newton was hit hard, stumbled around, knelt to the ground and came off the field. The Panthers announced that Newton was checked for a concussion, but he never left the sideline area. The league’s rules could not be clearer: Just 10 days ago the NFL said it would “Require a locker room concussion evaluation for all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” Newton was stumbling and was evaluated for a concussion. By rule, that evaluation had to take place in the locker room, not the sideline. This evaluation was done incorrectly, and the NFL needs to acknowledge it.