By BARRY WILNER
It's been a rough couple of weeks for NFL officials.
The coaches are angry, from Super Bowl winners Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan to the not quite as successful Bruce Arians and Mike Munchak.
Fans are upset, too, about calls they see and don't see, explanations they get but don't understand. Commentators are even wondering if the replacement officials have returned to the NFL.
Flags fly and everyone wonders why. Flags don't fly and everyone wonders why — but even more loudly.
Mike Tomlin doesn't get penalized for impeding an opponent's kick return. But the next week, the NFL fines him $100,000 and admits a flag should have been thrown.
The down markers and chains are moved when they shouldn't be in the final moments of Washington's home game against the Giants. The NFL says the next day that play should have been stopped to correct the error, which was confusing and somewhat costly to the Redskins.
Cardinals coach Arians mentions "obviously very, very many problems" with the officiating in a 24-21 loss at Philadelphia and says he sent "about 15 plays" to the NFL for review by Dean Blandino, vice president of officiating.
Belichick, who was fined $50,000 last year for bumping into an official, suggests giving coaches more freedom to challenge calls, even offside or holding.
"I don't see anything wrong with the concept of, 'You can challenge any two plays you want.' I understand that judgment calls are judgment calls," he says. "But to say that an important play can't be reviewed, I don't think that's really in the spirit of, 'Let's try to get everything right and make sure that the most important plays are officiated properly'."
He added, "It's kind of confusing for me as to which plays are and which plays aren't challengeable."
This from perhaps the most prepared coach in the sport.
Most worrisome is the perception that officials either aren't in control of the game, or they are having too much impact while making incorrect calls. Criticism ranges from TV announcers wondering if the officiating crews know the rules to players believing officials have carte blanche — they don't get flagged for their own mistakes.
Redskins receiver Santana Moss, who took issue with a holding call Sunday night and was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, couldn't be more down on the officials.
"It's probably been worse this whole year as a total," the 13-year veteran says. "Not just this team but I've watched a lot of football this year; it's been the worst that I've ever seen.
"I understand so many things being changed but at the end of the day, some of that stuff is crap. So hopefully somebody who's in a higher position will really watch this season alone and then see some of the stuff that's being called and haven't been called, they can go and try to critique that."
The league does exactly that, of course. Blandino, who took over this year as the NFL's officiating director, is like one of his predecessors, Mike Pereira, now a Fox commentator. Blandino is open to suggestions, as frank as someone can be in his position, and reaches out regularly not only to his constituency but to the players, coaches, general managers and owners.
Such lines of communication are even more critical now, with Blandino's officials under siege.
"All aspects of the NFL are heavily scrutinized, from the players to the coaches to the clubs," Blandino writes in an email. "Officiating is certainly no different. We strive to be accurate, consistent and correct 100 percent of the time. While we know that is not possible, it's our goal to get as close as we can to that point and we are proud of our performance.
"But we will continue to strive for improvement in all aspects of officiating, especially the consistency of calls from crew to crew."
One suggestion for improving NFL officiating has been to make it a year-round job. As of now, the league has one full-time on-field official, Carl Johnson, who this year moved back to the action as a line judge from the VP of officiating job. Every other referee, umpire, line judge, whatever, has another occupation.
The average NFL official salary is $173,000 a year this season, rising to $205,000 by 2019.
Blandino says officials work on their part-time craft all year long.
"All NFL officials spend considerable time reviewing the rules year-round and making sure they are fully prepared to make decisions based upon those rules quickly, in high-pressure settings," he adds. "The officials take a weekly rules test and review a weekly training video, as well as position-specific videos."
Officials also are graded by the league on every play. From the clamor surrounding recent decisions, it would seem those grades can't be very high, though the NFL does not release that information.
But the number of protests are, as Arians notes about asking to have 15 plays reviewed.
"That's pretty high," he adds. "I think that's considered a problem."