As a petition to ban NFL official Pete Morelli from calling Eagles games moves past 71,000 signatures, the head of the NFL Referees Association is blasting the idea that one of his officials would display any bias while calling a game.
"Claims like these demonstrate a fundamental lack of knowledge about NFL officiating," Scott Green, the executive director of the NFLRA, said in response to the criticism of Morelli's crew over its performance in last week's Eagles-Panthers game. "The passion of NFL fans and teams are a big part of what makes the game so great. However, it's no excuse for the irresponsible and baseless claims we've seen lately."
The Change.org petition was started by Will Philbrick of Little Rock, Ark., who claimed Morelli "has a clear and statistically obvious bias against the Philadelphia Eagles." During the Eagles' 28-23 win at Carolina last Thursday night, Morelli and his crew called 10 penalties on the Eagles for 126 yards, and called just one penalty for one yard against the Panthers.
It wasn't just Eagles fans who were upset at the officiating. NFL Network's Rich Eisen called out Morelli's crew after a series of calls in the fourth quarter. Eagles players also voiced their opinions after the game.
"It boils me. You definitely get frustrated," Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills said about the officiating, while head coach Doug Pederson's initial response to the disparity was "Ten to 1? Wow." Safety Malcolm Jenkins told reporters he felt many of the calls "were ticky-tack, or weren't good calls," and told NBC Philadelphia's John Clark he "would definitely sign that petition if it came across my desk."
According to Eagles beat writer Zach Berman, the team has sent clips to the league office for clarification, a weekly procedure for all NFL teams.
As NBC Sports Philadelphia's Dave Zangaro first pointed out, Morelli has called 40 penalties for 396 yards against the Eagles in the last four Birds games his crew has officiated. Against the Eagles' four opponents, his crew has called just eight penalties for 74 yards.
But Green says those numbers lack important context, leading both reporters and fans to "sensationalize statistics" and "create click-bait headlines."
The NFLRA points out that the number of penalties reported at the end of the game fails to take into account the fact that some of the penalties called are ultimately declined, which could lead to the appearance of bias. In addition, crews are made up of different officials each year, making any potential favoritism impossible to carry out across multiple seasons.
Referees are also highly scrutinized by the league, subjected to background checks and prohibited from gambling. They're also put under a microscope by the league, graded on every call made in every game captured from multiple camera angles.
"Missing a single one can hurt his or her ranking and may be the difference between working in the postseason or not," Green said.
Despite the heavy oversight and commitment to getting the calls right, it's impossible to be perfect. In 2015, Morelli's officiating crew was pulled from a late-season Sunday Night Football matchup between the Colts and Steelers after making numerous errors during a Cardinals-49ers matchup a week before.
Morelli's crew also came under fire during the 2014 playoffs after it overturned a pass-interference call late in a wild-card game between the Lions and Cowboys that cost Detroit a first down and ultimately a victory, knocking them out of the playoffs.
Rob Vernatchi, Morelli's side judge, was suspended by the league in 2015 after some clock accuracy issues during the Steelers' Week 5 win over the Chargers. Vernatchi was hired as a regional supervisor of officiating during the off-season, and is now is among those who grade game tapes and evaluate crews.