The countdown clocks have been reset from zero and are now running. Atlanta is already in preparation mode to host Super Bowl LIII.
The offseason has begun, and there are several items on the agenda for the officiating department, both in terms of rules and personnel. Additionally, there are 21 experimental full-time officials who didn’t really have expansive duties during the regular season, but are now considered in active roles while the rest of the staff is in a CBA-imposed dark period. What exactly these officials will do is not entirely clear, but they will likely have roles in many of these agenda items.
Here’s a look at some of the items that will be addressed in the offseason.
“Start over” on the catch rule
At last week’s Super Bowl press conference, Commissioner Roger Goodell took a question about the catch rule a few minutes into the start of his question and answer session. In response to a question from Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on how the competition committee and the league would reassess the catch rule, Goodell began by saying that as the league reviewed 150 plays from the past season and that there was a lot of disagreement about what a catch was.
People with great football experience can disagree. Cris Carter believes you should make a catch, stand up and hand it to the referee — and if you don’t it’s not a catch. I admire and respect him a great deal. There are others who have a view that if you get possession of it, you get that second foot down, it’s immediately a catch.
Goodell added that “instead of adding to the rule or subtracting from the rule, is to start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start, because when you add or subtract things [from the current rule], it can still lead to confusion.” Among many, two notable examples occurred this past season when Jets tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins did not control the ball while going to the ground in a week 12 game against the Dolphins (he would be the subject of the same portion of the rule twice while losing possession). Another example occurred with great controversy in the Steelers/Patriots week 15 game, as Steelers’ tight end Jesse James lost possession of the ball while going to the ground after crossing the goal line.
If the Competition Committee does reset the catch rule, will there be other changes, either intended or unintended, that depart from the catch standard of the past decade or so?
— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) February 1, 2018
“Coarse” correction in replay
I felt I was being a bit hyperbolic in Week 1 to declare that “centralized replay flunks first test.” As the season progressed, it was not hyperbole; geometrically, it flatlined.
This was the first time that the command center at the league headquarters was authorized to render replay decisions — it had done so before unofficially, and with more input from the referee. An abrupt departure by Dean Blandino as the head of the officiating department caused even more flux in the system before it even sailed on its maiden voyage. To that end, some of the bumps in the replay road were expected.
The executive level was acutely aware of the controversies in replay, and multiple sources have said that pressure was applied to senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron and to vice president of replay Russell Yurk. Rather than using replay as the claw-end of the hammer to fix “clear and obvious” mistakes, it wound up being the hammer, pounding away at any nail in the veneer that did not look perfect. This had the net effect of reofficiating many plays, many of those plays being catches, many of those catches being touchdowns.
The system needs something more than a fine tuning.
It would appear that this correction was already underway, starting in the Wild Card round. The interception by Jalen Ramsey at the end of the Bills-Jaguars game sealed the victory for the Jaguars, but it is reasonable to wonder if the regular-season replay standard applied (video). In the Super Bowl, the Eagles touchdown catch by running back Corey Clement (video), and to a lesser extent the touchdown reception by tight end Zach Ertz (video), were upheld on a long-accepted standard of replay, and seemingly not the way it was adjudicated in the regular season.
No matter how much the league brass wanted a course correction in replay, there was only one opportunity to do so, and that was at the beginning of the postseason, when every team’s record is reset to 0-0. If a change was made during the regular season, it would have created a competitive inconsistency — a touchdown reversed in Week 4 must be handled the same in Week 15. I am encouraged by what I saw from replay in those games, albeit a small sample size of 4%. But, it shows that Riveron and Yurk — respectively, a 9-year NFL official on the field and someone whose experience was solely in the replay booth — are willing to listen to others and adapt.
Target on targeting
Last offseason, the Competition Committee emphasized that players could be disqualified for a flagrant hit. Even with this emphasis, there were still no players ejected for flagrant hits in 2017 although there were several situation where players were suspended, and it is likely that this will be revisited by the Competition Committee when it meets during the offseason.
The Committee will begin by examining video, beginning this week, of various illegal and legal hits and decide if a new or expanded rule is needed.
The NFL has made several strides to attempt to curtail dangerous hits to the head in recent years. Even with these changes, there are still many hits that the NFL does not want in the game anymore. Fines and suspensions have only marginally decreased these hits, and it seems increasingly likely that the NFL will adopt a similar targeting rule to that of the NCAA with automatic ejections. While the rule has not been universally embraced in the college game, it does draw a black and white line of what is or isn’t acceptable and when a player should be ejected.
If the NFL does adopt a rule that included an automatic ejection, it is also probable that there will be some type of review that comes with the penalty. It remains to be seen if there will be a “zero-tolerance” stance like in college where all targeting fouls will carry an ejection, or only if they are deemed excessively flagrant.
Promoting new white hat(s)
With the retirement of Jeff Triplette, an internal promotion to the referee position will take place this offseason. Since 2013, multiple officials have each donned the white hat in one game of the preseason as sort of a trial run, and there are a few candidates to look out for. This past preseason, five officials led crews in one preseason game each. Who are the frontrunners for Triplette’s position? Let’s take a look:
- Alex Kemp. A side judge since 2014, Kemp worked in the Big Ten conference for several seasons as a side judge and referee. Kemp worked several postseason games as a Big Ten side judge, including the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. Alex is the son of the late NFL side judge and referee Stan Kemp. He officiated the Bills-Jaguars Wild Card Playoff in January and was a member of Ed Hochuli’s crew last season. You may remember him as the official that Seahawks’ safety Earl Thomas hugged after a defensive touchdown in 2016.
- Shawn Smith. Smith has been an umpire in the NFL since 2015, and he worked Big Ten football games as a side judge and referee. He completed his first full season as a Big Ten referee in 2014, when the NFL came calling for the 2015 season. He was one of the officials who received two non-Super Bowl assignments this posteason, as he officiated both the Falcons-Rams Wild Card Playoff and the NFC Championship Game. Along with Kemp, Smith was on Ed Hochuli’s crew this season.
- Shawn Hochuli. Son of Ed Hochuli, Shawn is a back judge, and has been in the NFL since 2014. Hochuli worked in the Big 12 and Pac-12 at back judge and referee. As a Pac-12 referee, he worked the 2012 USC-Notre Dame game and the 2012 Pac-12 football championship. He also officiated in the Arena Football league as a referee. He worked the Falcons-Eagles Divisional Playoff this past postseason and was a member of Brad Allen’s crew during the season. However, it has been rumored that Hochuli will not be promoted to the referee position until his father retires. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that he will replace Triplette, but there is potential that he may don the white hat in time.
While Triplette is the only confirmed retirement, that doesn’t mean there won’t be more. You can expect to see one or more of these three men wearing white hats in the 2018 NFL season.
Staff turnover and development
Tom Stephan and Jeff Bergman missed time due to late-season injuries. Laird Hayes had hip replacement surgery one week after the regular season. He’s recovering well and we will see if he will come back for another season. People can officiate on artificial joints. Former umpire Garth DeFelice officiated most of the 16-year career with two artificial knees. No one ever wants to have their career end on an injury, so here’s hoping all three can recover and officiate in 2018.
So far, Triplette has only been one retirement that’s made the news. We are aware that there are others that are filing or considering filing retirement papers, which will be confirmed in the coming weeks.
I think we are past the massive exodus (some volunteered, some volun-told) like we saw in 2014. Still, several officials have over 20 years of experience — not an automatic qualifier for retirement but an indicator that an official is approaching the twilight of his career.
While rare, the NFL drops officials if they physically cannot do the job or if they fail to meet required standards for three straight years. The NFL never states why an official leaves the league, so we will never be able to confirm if the NFL terminates an official. If an official does not qualify for an on-field or alternate playoff assignment, that can raise a red flag about their job status.
This past season, the NFL expanded its Officiating Development Program to a whopping 30 candidates who are trying out for spots in pro ball. Those ODP officials will be the candidates for any open spots.
One of the best NFL officiating programs happened under former vice president Mike Pereira’s watch. Instead of putting retired officials “out to pasture” he asked retired officials like Jerry Markbreit, Red Cashion, Sid Semon, Al Jury, Jim Quirk, Ben Montgomery and Ron Botchan to come along current officials and act as a coach, confidant and mentor.
The retired officials loved being part of the game and passing along their knowledge to the next generation, while the active officials were able to soak up that knowledge.
Well, these legendary officials are getting older and they may want to fully retire, plus many have been off the field anywhere between 15 and 20 years. Again, nothing is wrong with age and experience, but these officials eventually will pass the torch to the next generation of mentors. The only question is — who are these mentors? The NFL needs to work hard to keep the mentoring program going and request the help of recently retired officials to pass along their knowledge to help advance officiating.
In March, the NFL will know the officials who are retiring and by late March of early April the NFL will offer jobs from the list of ODP officials. We will share that information as it becomes available.