Some important changes are coming to the NFL.  Whether or not the changes will be seen this season or next depends on how quickly the coronavirus pandemic can be brought under control.  The league has already indicated that it is dead set in moving forward with the regular season on schedule, but the ultimate decision might be made somewhere else.

Everyone is hoping that the games will start up, but the current catchphrase for the NFL, and every other sports league, is “Let’s take it day by day.”

Changes Coming To NFL – New Eye In Sky

When football gets going, each officiating crew will now be equipped with a “sky judge.”  This isn’t someone floating over the field, nor is it some type of robotic referee drone (although that is undoubtedly on the way).  Instead, it’s a referee up in the booth who will be providing a backstop for the on-field crew and who will have the power to override any calls they make.

The concept isn’t exactly new – NFL teams have discussed the option for the past several years.  However, the league routinely decided that it wasn’t going to be able to get booth referees trained quickly enough to handle the task, and the idea was nixed.  Had it been in place, the New Orleans Saints could have avoided several notable mistakes that cost them Super Bowl-potential appearances.  Not to single out the Saints, but they appear to have suffered consistently for the past few years at the hands of less-than-reliable officiating crews.

It’s an idea that has been found in other football leagues, such as the former AAF and the XFL.  It appears to have worked for the limited number of games the XFL had this year before the season was canceled, and the XFL’s head of officiating, Dean Blandino (who is also the former head of officiating for the NFL), believes the NFL Competition Committee is ready to include it in the league.  He told John Kryk of the Toronto Sun, “The competition committee had an abbreviated conference call—obviously, with what’s going on they can’t meet in person as they normally would—but they had a call last week some time, and they went through all the rules proposals. And there is support for this.”

League Changes Possible, But Draft Comes First

It would be devastating to see the upcoming NFL season canceled, and no one is yet considering this as a legitimate possibility – at least no one whose opinion matters.  Before anything happens, though, the NFL Draft has to be held.  There are plans in place to hold the draft almost entirely through remote connections, with everyone involved working from home.  Under normal circumstances, remote work is not a bad idea, but handling something of this magnitude and importance is causing concern among teams.

In order to ensure that the actual draft runs smoothly, with more than a thousand communications channels trying to connect and participate in what would be one of the largest remote phone calls in recent history, and a first for the NFL, the league is proposing setting up a mock draft ahead of the real thing.  This would allow everyone to test out the system to make sure it works properly, but even this isn’t ideal.

John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, is quoted by the Baltimore Ravens as saying, “Yeah, big concern.  Every time I read something in, like, The Wall Street Journal or the New York Times that talks about how messed up Zoom is, or some of these other deals … I immediately text it to our IT people, and [director of football administration] Nick Matteo’s one of those guys, and they assure me that we are doing everything humanly possible.”

Harbaugh’s comments reference an issue that recently surfaced that the Zoom videoconference platform has been riddled with security flaws that have allowed hackers to easily break in.  The chief operating officer of the LA Rams, Kevin Demoff, agrees and, according to Football Morning in America by Peter King, states, “How do you make sure your conversations are protected?  Someone could hack into this Zoom, and you’re probably not going to learn a lot. Hacking into a team’s draft room on Zoom is probably a lot different. That would be my biggest concern just from an encryption standpoint of how do you have these conversations confidentially.”

A Number Of Questions Still Remain

This is going to be a unique NFL Draft, but these are unique times.  There are a lot of legal and logistical problems to be sorted out before anything can move forward.  Hopefully, things will be able to proceed with some sort of normalcy so that football won’t be delayed any longer than absolutely necessary.

However, the coronavirus continues to make things difficult, and is determined to disrupt the world anywhere and everywhere it can.