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NFL fires down judge Hugo Cruz

Football Zebras exclusive

In a stunning move, the NFL has fired down judge Hugo Cruz, number 94, effective immediately, which has been confirmed by 7 sources who have firsthand knowledge of the situation.

This is the first time in the Super Bowl era that the NFL has fired an official in the middle of the regular season. Previously, the NFL has suspended officials for major mistakes and, if warranted, dropped the official in the offseason. Others had their fate sealed early in the season, but completed the rest of the year, as had happened to a rookie official who fell asleep during a preseason clinic. (He never saw a second season.)

The NFL Referees Association vowed to fight the termination. “The NFL has a troubling history of knee-jerk reactions with an eye on public relations, and clearly it has not learned from past mistakes,” said Scott Green, executive director of the NFLRA in an e-mail to Football Zebras . “The NFLRA will protect the collectively bargained rights of all officials and will challenge this reckless decision through the Grievance process.”

An NFL spokesman declined to comment.

One of the sources confirmed that Cruz was not “maintaining a very high level of performance over a sustained period,” while another told Football Zebras  in March that Cruz’s future with the league was already in jeopardy. This is partially borne out by his lack of postseason assignments for the two seasons he would have qualified for, not counting assignment as an alternate last season. Another oddity that our sources could not find a reason for was that Cruz was assigned to a different crew for 3 of the 6 regular season games he has worked this year. He was assigned to Brad Allen’s crew in Week 6 when a crucial missed false start call should have nullified a Chargers touchdown (or, more accurately, the play would have been shut down long before that).

Even though the miscall was very significant, no call on its own would prompt a firing. Basic human resources training would tell you that there is a document trail of transgressions that will make the case. It is, apparently, the last straw for senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron. Cruz was off last week, so the Week 6 Chargers-Browns game was his last.

As surprising as a midseason firing is, any firing for that matter is a rare occurrence. Although there are cases of officials seemingly coerced into retirement, mostly to manage turnover, there have been very few outright terminations. In the last 10 years, one official was dismissed for an undisclosed off-field issue, and another was dismissed due to performance following a crucial error in the season finale. That’s it. Notably, the NFL attempted to terminate 8 officials due to performance issues in 2003; the NFLRA was able to successfully get most of them rehired or assigned to the replay booth.

But one source said, as surprising as the move is, when an official does not perform well “there are consequences, which can include termination of employment.”

Now that it happened, what’s next? How the league and the officials go forward from Cruz firing

Cruz’s ascension to the NFL happened almost as quickly as his downfall. Before joining the NFL in 2015, Cruz was recruited by former NFL referee Gerry Austin, who is the head of football officiating for Conference USA. Cruz worked for 6 seasons, where he was assigned to 2 bowl games, a conference championship game, and 2 East-West Shrine games. The NFL brought him in as a preseason development official in the first 2 seasons the program existed, leading to his hire the following season. He is the second official to have left the NFL after entering the league through the development program; classmate Ed Walker retired during the last offseason due to an injury.

Cruz has also worked as a minor league baseball umpire.

Referee Carl Cheffers will now have a vacancy on his crew which can be handled in one or more of these ways: (1) Line judge Mike Spanier is a swing official this season, which means he is placed on a different crew or wherever needed, and occasionally substitutes as a down judge. Spanier could finish out the season on Cheffers’ crew. (2) With multiple teams on bye weeks now, more officials are drawing bye weeks. A down judge or line judge could work during their regularly scheduled off week. (3) An official can work a Thursday night game and a Sunday or Monday game in the same week.

This week, Cheffers’ crew coincidentally has the Browns, who were on defense for that touchdown play. Spanier will work as down judge on the crew this week, according to a source.

We began this season saying that Riveron needed a good season for job security. Unless the decision came from his superiors, Riveron is sending a clear message to the staff by taking such an unprecedented step and not waiting until the end of the season.  

Image: Oakland Raiders photo

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10 thoughts on “NFL fires down judge Hugo Cruz

  1. This is the problem with unions: they never see a valid reason for a member of the union to ever be fired; it is their bottom line versus quality of output. Why should referees, umpires, etc. always been considered above criticism, especially public criticism when their job is in such a public forum? As the old cliché goes, “If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen”. Why should their mistakes be held to a lower standard than someone in any other job? The argument that no one play can decide a game is only true on the surface. One mistake on a scoring play can absolutely decide a game. His blunder was akin to a stock trader putting the decimal on a trade in the wrong place and costing his client or company a lot of money. That trader, as material as his mistake was, will be fired 100% of the time, and in many cases, he would also be investigated for potential fraud/theft. Stop coddling the officials when they screw up. They are adults, so treat them as such. If they cant handle the scrutiny, they need to pick another line of work. And, while I am in the middle of my rant, more power needs to be taken away from the unions. They are worse than the government where you have to kill someone to ever be fired (I am not including appointees at the top who can and do often get fired for making mistakes). The point is, no one should be crying that an official is fired, whether during the season or not, for making a potentially game-deciding mistake.

    Whew! Ok, rant over.

  2. This was bound to happen.

    The league has brought in some really weak young officials. Hugo Cruz was a very weak DJ, but there are a few others out there that are equally as poor.

    How bad is it? It would be easier to list the DJ’s that are excellent or competent than list the deficient ones. Part of the problem is so many have less than 5 years in the league and they have hired the new officials for the wrong reasons.

    I won’t name names, but of the DJ’s with 10 years or more- two are poor and two are weak. Of the DJs with under 5 years – Hugo was not even the worst. Only one of the DJs with 5 or under is very good.

    The new guys working the field are a disgrace in comparison to likes of Stabile or Veteri.

  3. Jerome Boger got downgraded 8 times in 2012 yet he worked the Super Bowl. It’s long overdue the NFL punish an official for screwing up.

  4. I understand the need to get rid of the guy. But he has been with the NFL for five years. Why not just take him off the schedule and then allow him to resign at year end rather than making him a national scapegoat.

  5. Not to excuse Hugo Cruz’s performance, but there are so many ticky-tacky rules in place now that the game has become impossible to officiate efficiently.

  6. Cruz missed the obvious call against the Chargers and should be fired. Shawn Hochuli should be gone as well. He actually announced that it was okay for Baker Mayfield to get hit in the head with a defender’s helmet because he was a runner. Replays clearly showed Baker was in a slide when hit. When is a head-to-head hit ever legal under the new NFL rules? I thought the NFL put the refs on full time, to improve the calls? It’s getting worse instead of better!

  7. Should have fired whole crew for Super bowl LII. They all missed (Ignored) the blind side hit Philadelphia’s Jenkins put on Patriots Hogan 25 yards down the field on last play of the game. Blatant illegal contact well beyond the 5 yards. They get paid to call penalties even on the last play of the game. I guess the fix was in.

  8. The refs have been blowing kisses to Brady and the Patriots for too long. Time had come for the other team to get one.

  9. I wonder if this sequence in the 2d quarter of the same game had anything to do with Cruz:

    • 1st & 10 at LAC 42
    (4:05 – 2nd) (No Huddle, Shotgun) N.Chubb left tackle to LAC 23 for 19 yards (D.James). PENALTY on CLV-D.Ratley, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at LAC 23.
    • 1st & 1 at LAC 33
    (3:49 – 2nd) (Shotgun) B.Mayfield pass short right to D.Njoku to LAC 31 for 2 yards (D.King).
    • 1st & 10 at LAC 31
    (3:13 – 2nd) (Shotgun) B.Mayfield pass incomplete short left to J.Landry.

    The Browns gained 19 yards on 1st down but we called for a holding penalty. Somehow the next down was 1st and 1. It didn’t affect the game, but how can a run play be called back for holding and the result be 1st and 1?

  10. Because holding is 10 yards from the spot, or 10 yards from the line of scrimmage if behind the line. It says it right in what you pasted. Holding, 10 yards, enforced at LAC 23. 10 yards back is the 33. Replay the down. 1st and 1.

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