From the highlights to the lowlights, the past decade has been full of news, advancements, and controversies in the world of NFL officiating. We live in a very different world we lived in just ten years ago. Without further ado, from the game-changing calls to the broken glass-ceilings, and from the controversial moments to the career achievements, Football Zebras presents this three-part series showcasing the top officiating moments of the 2010s.
Referee Walt Coleman joins the 30 Club (2018)
In 2018, referee Walt Coleman became only the seventh official in NFL history to work 30 or more seasons. Hired in 1989 at the line judge position by head of officiating Art McNally, Coleman was promoted to referee in 1995 when the league expanded to 30 teams. Coleman is perhaps most well-known for his assignment to the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff — the Tuck Rule Game — between the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots. Late in the fourth quarter, Coleman reversed what would likely have been a game-sealing fumble recovery by the Raiders to an incomplete pass by the Patriots, at the foundation of the New England dynasty. As a result, he did not officiate a Raiders game in the 261 games he has worked since.
Coleman worked 17 postseason games during his time in the NFL, which included 6 Wild Card Playoffs, 9 Divisional Playoffs, and 2 Conference Championships. An unfortunate assignment missing from Coleman’s résumé is an on-field Super Bowl assignment. All six other officials who have worked 30 or more seasons had at least three league championship games or Super Bowls under their belt, so it has perplexed us for years why he never received that call, as Coleman was more than deserving, but I digress.
Coleman’s son, Walt IV, joined the league in 2015. If one of this season’s six rookie officials were to replicate Coleman’s feat, he would be working through the 2048 season and potentially have a shot at a Super Bowl LXXXIII assignment.
Referee Bill Vinovich makes his triumphant return to the field (2012)
Following the 2006 season, referee Bill Vinovich took a medical leave of absence after suffering an aortic aneurysm. In the offseason, prior to the 2007 season, Vinovich experienced severe back pain while running on a treadmill, and thinking he suffered a typical muscular injury as a result of the workout, he went to his doctor where he was told his life was in danger. The condition was treated, but Vinovich was sidelined indefinitely, both as an NFL referee and as a NCAA Division I basketball official. During his time off the field, Vinovich served as an officiating observer and grader. John Parry was promoted to referee after Vinovich left the field.
Five years later, doctors gave Vinovich a clean bill of health. His first game was between the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6 of the 2012 season. Starting out as a swing official for the rest of the 2012 season, Vinovich had his own crew the following year, replacing the outgoing referee Al Riveron. Vinovich officiated Super Bowl XLIX following the 2014 season, and has been assigned to eight other postseason games since his return. He is also considered one of the elite referees in the league today.
Referee Carl Cheffers needs “a minute” (2010)
In Week 3 of the 2010 season, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Houston Texans in the battle of the Lone Star State. However, in the officiating world, as well as the sports bloopers world, the game is most remembered for a kickoff early in the fourth quarter, where referee Carl Cheffers and his crew needed to sort out three separate fouls.
In what is possibly the winner of the announcement of the decade, Cheffers was only able to report one foul before needing to excuse himself “for a minute” to make sure he had everything straight. His third year as a referee, Cheffers sought clarification from umpire Undrey Wash, field judge Boris Cheek, and side judge Barry Anderson. Line judge Darryll Lewis also came in a bit later to make sure everything was right. In the end, the crew was able to enforce everything correctly, but Cheffers still had some trouble with the final announcement. For the small percentage of you who have never seen the announcement before, take a look:
While Carl Cheffers is one of the league’s most accomplished and well-respected referees today, there is no doubt everyone can have a bit of a chuckle at his expense in this highlight reel classic.
Revolving door at the head of officiating position (2010, 2013, 2017)
The past decade saw three passings of the torch at the head of officiating position, a position which also had some name changes over the past ten years, as well. The start of the 2010s marked the end of the Mike Pereira era, who left the league as the vice president of officiating during the 2010 offseason to move closer to his elderly parents (subsequently he was offered a position as officiating analyst for Fox Sports).
Taking over for Pereira was line judge Carl Johnson, who himself was two years off a Super Bowl assignment. Johnson served as the vice president of officiating for three seasons, when in the 2013 offseason, Johnson returned to the field as a full-time official, the first one in league history.
Johnson’s replacement was Dean Blandino, a replay official from 1999-2003, manager of the instant replay program from 2003-2009, as well as Mike Pereira’s right-hand man from 2007-2009, as director of officiating. During Blandino’s tenure, the head of officiating official title changed to senior vice president of officiating.
After Blandino’s reign for four seasons, incumbent Al Riveron assumed the throne, as Blandino’s second-in-command in the league office, previously being a nine-year NFL official, working at the side judge and referee positions.
The 2010s saw the most changes in the head honcho of the officiating department in a single decade since the 1960s, when Samuel Wilson, Joe Kuharich, Mark Duncan, and Art McNally all served as the supervisor of officials in a ten-year span.
Notable punishments for officials’ on-field incidents (2012, 2013, 2015, 2018)
Very rarely does the NFL take action against game officials for on-field incidents, but the 2010s saw four notable courses of action the league took against officials, including three suspensions. In 2013, umpire Roy Ellison was suspended for “profane and derogatory comments” towards Washington offensive tackle Trent Williams in a Week 11 game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Ellison was again punished in 2018 for a post-game confrontation with Buffalo Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes during Week 13. In the latter of the two cases, Ellison was placed on “administrative leave” and fined a game check for the altercation, however, this was a de facto suspension for Ellison.
Side judge Rob Vernatchi was suspended in 2015 for not detecting an 18-second runoff following a touchback in a Monday night game between the Steelers and Chargers in Week 5. Vernatchi was paid during his suspension, although the league never publicly called it a suspension. Vernatchi now works as one of the league’s regional supervisors.
Finally, in 2012, referee Tony Corrente was fined a game check for using foul language directed at his crew while his microphone was accidentally left on during a Week 9 game in Indianapolis. The mini-tirade was broadcast to the fans at Lucas Oil Stadium, over both teams’ radio broadcasts, and the CBS television broadcast. The spat between Corrente and his crew, in particular back judge Greg Wilson, was over the spot of a penalty enforcement for a defensive foul for too many players on the field. Corrente subsequently apologized to the Colts’ organization.
Patriots “Deflategate” scandal brings officiating procedures into limelight (2014 season)
Following allegations of equipment tampering in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, which accused New England Patriots attendant for the officials locker room Jim McNally and equipment manager John Jastremski of orchestrating an elaborate scheme to remove air from footballs post-inspection by the officiating crew, detailed accounts of officiating pregame procedures became available to the public. The lengthy report written by investigator Ted Wells documented in-depth details of the protocols followed by referee Walt Anderson and his all-star crew to prepare the game balls for play. In all, 24 officials, including the crew working the game, were interviewed as part of the report. As an officiating fan, this section of the report was an interesting read to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the crew prepares for a game.
As a result of the incident, the NFL told the officials that the procedures regarding the monitoring and preparation of game balls would be changed. Security representatives for the league now must be present once the footballs are returned to each team’s equipment staff post-inspection by the referee.