When the 17 referees receive their crew assignments when their offseason officially ends May 15, some may take notice that one of their new crew members is a first-year official. Every veteran official knows the feeling, because at one point, that was them: having spent decades working every level of organized football, from 10-year-old kids to Division I college football, their officiating dreams had come true when they had finally made it to the NFL.
Eight officials are about three-quarters through their first year, working five different positions, each on a different officiating crew. When the crews are formed in the late spring, new hires are usually placed onto crews with a high amount of combined experience, typically including a tenured referee. These rookies have all gone through the Officiating Development Program, some for multiple years, in order to experience and see how well they can handle the professional game, which is widely known for being played at a much greater speed than college football. Prior to the implementation of the development program, officiating prospects were tested and trained through the now-defunct World League/NFL Europe, which ran from 1991 up until 2007. Using various names, the development program began in 2013.
It’s kind of a nice honor to have a rookie on your crew.
Rookie officials are not eligible to receive a postseason assignment in their first season. Therefore, they are not able to work a playoff game until their second year, if graded high enough. If an official is assigned to a postseason game in their second year, it would be either a Wild Card or Divisional Playoff. Conference Championship officials, including referees, must have 3 years of seniority and a prior playoff assignment under their belt. And to work the Super Bowl, non-referees must have 5 years of NFL experience, and either a prior Conference Championship assignment or 3 playoff games worked in the previous 5 years. As a result of this assignment policy, the goal of first-year officials is not to be assigned to a postseason game, but rather to cement their position on the officials’ roster, and strive for that playoff game in their second season.
In his book Last Call: Memoirs of an NFL Referee, former referee Jerry Markbreit detailed his adventures coaching the late Chad Brown during his rookie season as an umpire in the 1992 season. He recalled an instance where Brown threw a flag for a face mask foul, but could not remember the number or team of the player who committed the act. Having experience in NFL training camps as a player, Brown was able to get help from the teams on the field to identify the player who fouled. Markbreit explained that Brown had a strong work ethic and phenomenally transitioned over from a player to an official, which he stated is a difficult transition to make.
Among the veteran referees who have a rookie on their crew for this season is Pete Morelli, 21-year veteran of the NFL and former field judge. He also was down judge Sarah Thomas’s referee when she was hired in 2015 as a line judge. Coincidentally enough, Morelli’s rookie official is also a field judge as he was. Brad Rogers, who was a center judge in the Southeastern Conference before being promoted to referee in 2015, was hired this spring and was assigned to Morelli’s crew. This summer, Football Zebras attended a training camp rules session with Pete Morelli’s crew at the New England Patriots facility, and Morelli had only good things to say about his first-year field judge:
I was a referee in college and when I came into this league I became a field judge just like Brad [Rogers] is becoming. And I’ve known Brad because I worked with him way back when I was working through the collegiate ranks since he was at camps that I’d been in, so I know him. We spent some time looking at film, talking about mechanics and philosophy and different things, so it’ll be a work in progress. Especially, I expect my veterans — I have 21-year veteran [side judge] Boris Cheek, two Super Bowls, and [back judge] Greg Steed back there — to work with him as mentors. It’ll be fun. It’s kind of a nice honor to have a rookie on your crew. He’s a good one.
Rogers also helped Morelli sort out five fouls that occurred on a punt play during the preseason. At the conclusion of the rules presentation, Rogers approached me, holding Morelli’s jersey and white hat, and joked that rookie officials carry the vets’ equipment just like the rookie players.
It is very clear to the first-year officials that getting into the NFL is not the most important goal, but staying in the NFL is. And through all the scrutiny that they will go under, veterans on their crews will always be there to help from the season’s start until Week 17.