Traditionally, officiating crews have been kept together from week to week throughout the whole of a season with few deviations. At the recent NFL officiating clinic, senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said that there will be an intentional practice of swapping officials between crews in the 2016 NFL season.
Blandino discussed this change in an interview with Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com. Blandino explained that getting “the best seven officials on the field for every game” involves multiple factors. The main motivation is to optimize the crews and officials based on the matchups between teams, or other factors that the league office notices from week to week.
In an ideal world, the word consistency would refer to officials working with the same crew each week, as well as their performance on the field. Crew consistency allows officials to develop chemistry with each other as they learn how the other officials work on the field. If a mistake is made in one week, that same group of officials can work together to change how they approach that situation the next week.
However, factors such as team matchups, experience of officials, and even a lack of chemistry between officials can cause a stubborn reliance on crew consistency to be a downfall. With a change, the crew concept will not be abandoned completely, leaving the 2016 plan at simply a mixture of crew consistency and the ability to adjust officials as needed.
In 2015, we saw a few instances where officials were swapped among crews for different games. One example was a reassignment for Greg Wilson after an incorrect judgment on a batted ball in week 4. Pete Morelli’s crew was also moved off a primetime game to deflect attention on the crew, which seemed to have the opposite effect.
The league insists there is no suggestion that any game is more important than another, or that officials are being promoted or demoted based on assignment. Blandino emphasized this lack of hierarchy: “Every game is important, and every game means the same to the two teams that are playing. This will just give us the ability to shuffle people around and try to put them in the best position to be successful.”
A week-to-week optimization can also take into account the experience level of officials, ensuring that inexperienced officials are backed by more experience in other positions, and can be rotated away from high profile games early in their career. Another use is even evaluating relationships between officials themselves, as it is imperative that certain positions that rely on each other heavily (such as the referee-umpire tandem or officials that work the same sideline) have good chemistry.
Blandino was not specific about how often this would be implemented or how many officials each week would be with a different crew. The implication was that changes would be made as necessary and where it would be most beneficial; otherwise, crews would remain the same.
There are five swing officials on staff that will be rotated between crews throughout the season. According to Football Zebras research, this is the largest the officiating bullpen has been since 1981; the only time more than 3 swing officials were on staff was 1994 and 2000, with four each, in advance of adding expansion teams. Most likely, swing officials will be utilized first in these discretionary assignments before the officials on the crew roster are moved. This allows more flexibility to adapt to the week-to-week factors without affecting the core of each crew.
Seifert spoke with referee Walt Coleman, who is open to the concept, but clearly favors consistency from week to week.
“The problem you get into is when you’re trying to evaluate the previous week’s game, which we all do every week,” Coleman said. “The great part of working with the same people each week is that you can talk about what happened in the previous week. But if you’ve got different people coming in every time, it creates issues as far as the crew concept and everybody working together. That’s my thing about it.”
Referee Ron Torbert was optimistic about swapping officials between crews, emphasizing that because the NFL officiating staff strives to be consistent even from one crew to the next, “it shouldn’t matter if you’re working with a different person this week than you did last week. The same rules and same officiating policies apply.”
Last season, officials were expecting the officiating department to “blow up all the crews,” as one source put it, for the final third of the season. (Officiating assignments are handed out roughly one-third of the season at a time.) This did not happen, and the only time swing officials were placed for more than one week on a crew was due to injury or medical reasons. While the cloud of performance-based substitutions loomed at the end of last season, it seems that will be the norm for the entire 2016 season.