Possible staffing shortage could cause Week 17 shuffle
The Week 9 Sunday Night Football game in Green Bay featured a very rare sight. Umpire Tony Michalek was pressed into duty as a line judge. Michalek, who worked as a line judge for a few seasons in the Big Ten Conference before moving to umpire, served as the emergency fill-in on Craig Wrolstad’s crew. Side judge Jeff Lamberth had to miss the game for an undisclosed health reason, and there wasn’t time to bring in another side judge. Line judge Tim Podraza moved to the side judge position, and Michalek worked line judge. The NFL used Michalek as a line judge because of logistics since he was just a car drive away. (Lamberth is expected to return to the field soon.)
Officiating crews have several contingency plans in place if an emergency develops and an official can’t make the game. First of all, each crew has a designated person to fill in for the referee should the referee become injured during the game or becomes sick. The crew then officiates the game using six-man mechanics. Since there are no alternate officials assigned to regular season games, each crew has its own contingency plan of how it will work if one of the other six officials have to leave the game. Usually, the back judge position is sacrificed to fill in for the injured official or as a part of a two-official move to cover.
That all works well in emergencies, but what happens when the NFL knows an official will miss an extended period due to injury or has to miss an upcoming game due to another commitment?
The NFL will go to all possible lengths to make sure there are seven officials to call the game. In some seasons, the NFL has a few “swing” officials, a pool of officials who usually are rehabbing an injury when the crews are finalized, but this season’s only swing official was made permanent before the preseason started. Then, the NFL will call in an official whose crew has a bye week to come in and substitute for the crew who is down a man. If that doesn’t work, the NFL will ask an official to work two games on one weekend (work with his regular crew on Thursday night, then substitute with another crew on Sunday, for example). The NFL will try to make sure the substitute is the same position as the person he’s replacing. If the NFL can’t cover the vacancy that way, it might ask an official to work out of position (a line judge substituting in the head linesman’s position, for example).
On a rare occasion, the NFL will ask an official to work radically out of position — hence an umpire working as a line judge (like we saw Michalek doing) or at the end of the 2011 season when field judge Terry Brown worked a game at umpire when the NFL was short at that position (h/t to russ on Behind the Football Stripes).
The NFL has an advanced training program that helps develop college officials and is the talent pool where the NFL hires its new officials. Could the NFL put one of the trainees into a game? The answer is no. Those trainees are not members of the NFL Referees Association (the officials’ union) and the 2012 collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFLRA prohibits the NFL from hiring trainees in-season as regular officials or one-game substitutes.
The NFL has had staffing pressure this year due to in-season retirements and injury. Since the end of the officials’ offseason on May 15, the NFL has seen four officials retire (Mike Weir, Kirk Dornan, Mike Carey, and Chad Brown) and has seen other officials miss significant time due to injuries (head linesman Ed Camp, umpire Darrell Jenkins and now line judge Darryll Lewis). The NFL could face a staffing shortage in Week 17, as all the games will be played on Sunday that week and there are no teams on bye. This means there is only one crew to draw substitutes from, and the league is already committed to using at least three from that crew. If there are more officials out with sickness or injury, the NFL officiating office could have some staffing headaches to close out the season.