Boger has clean slate as bad marks were wiped
a Football Zebras special report
This season began with the NFL using a pool of replacement officials who were retired or came from lower college divisions and junior colleges. It will end with the NFL using a referee who might not be the most qualified.
We have confirmed in advance of the formal announcement that Jerome Boger is the referee for Super Bowl XLVII on February 3. While the NFL won’t go on record about this assignment until after the conference championship games, we know that the officiating staff has been made aware of the assignments for the big game. In fact, rumors of his assignment were known to us Dec. 30, based on sources who had knowledge of the grades and how they were finalizing. We have learned that it is believed in officiating circles that the Super Bowl assignment was a predetermined result and that his performance grades were fixed to attain that result.
We have already reported that Boger lacks a key prerequisite: a conference championship game on his résumé. The league disputes this prerequisite even existed. Michael Signora, the league’s vice president of football communications, said, “the criteria for referees to be eligible for the Super Bowl is three years experience as a referee (and five years total) and playoff experience as a referee. That criteria has not changed since at least 2007.”
Previously, the league has told us that the conference championship was part of the criteria. In an e-mail Signora stated, “In order for an official at any position to be eligible for the Super Bowl, he must have at least five years of NFL experience and either a conference championship game assignment or a playoff assignment in the Wild Card or Divisional round in three of the past five years.”
That three-of-five provision — that an official could substitute three years of playoff experience in the past five years for the conference championship requirement — has been in effect for the six officiating positions except for the referee position, according to a former NFL official, whom I will refer to as Matthew. His identity is not being revealed in exchange for allowing him to speak candidly and to share internal information he knows about the NFL.
I followed up with the league office to validate the criteria “for an official at any position,” and to make certain that the three-of-five provision did not apply to the referee position. Signora responded that was, in fact, not applicable to the referee. He added that a referee needed three years experience as a referee, five years total, and must have worked a playoff game as a referee. In context, it is clear this is an add-on requirement for the most visible member of the crew. If this criteria was the only prerequisite, it would allow an official with a single postseason game under his belt the qualifications to be the chief arbiter of the largest annual sporting event in the world. But, on a second follow-up e-mail, the league stated that the referee only had to meet this oddly low standard.
The league office could not simply apply the three-of-five criteria to qualify Boger. He has only made two assignments in that time frame, which include divisional playoff matchups against seemingly unlikely foes in the context of the current season: the Jets and Chargers in the 2009 season and the Jaguars and Patriots in 2007. In this season, Boger was assigned to a divisional playoff game, which is common practice to give a Super Bowl official a second postseason assignment in one of the first two rounds.
So, Boger has qualified since he has more than five years of NFL officiating experience, he has been a referee for at least three years, and he has been at the referee position for at least one playoff game. Check, check, and check.
Even if the qualification standards allow Boger to officiate, does he qualify as the best official of the subset of the highest tier officials in the country?
John Murphy, opined on his program on WGR 550 in Buffalo when discussing Boger’s Super Bowl assignment, “I broadcast Bills games and watch a lot of football, and I would never put Jerome Boger among my top five officials in terms of guys who are consistently good.”
The prevailing casual observation is that Boger is not Super Bowl caliber. But fans are not a good judge of officials’ abilities, only those who scrutinize every detail of every play would be able to accurately make that determination. That type of evaluation is conducted in the command center of the officiating department at 345 Park Ave. in Manhattan in the early days of the week, and their findings are not public knowledge.
But the officials do have knowledge of their on-field accuracy. We discussed this year’s grading with a man we will identify as Charles, an official in the NFL. Charles cannot discuss the grades on the record, nor can he talk to the media during the season. “NFL officials discuss their grades with each other constantly. They know what is a downgrade and what isn’t a downgrade,” he said.
When the officiating supervisors review the video of each game, a report is generated with the missed and incorrect calls, or downgrades. Colloquially, the officials refer to these as “dings.” If an official disagrees with the judgment call on a downgrade, he can appeal it to the officiating department for reconsideration.
In speaking with Matthew and Charles, they independently revealed that eight dings were present on Boger’s evaluations. “Eight downgrades can eliminate you from being eligible to officiate the playoffs. Other officials who received less downgrades than eight aren’t officiating in the playoffs,” said Charles.
Boger is reported by both sources to have appealed the eight downgrades as they showed up in the weekly evaluations. All eight appeals reversed the ding, and Boger was left with a spotless record for the 2012 season. Thus, he outperformed others at the referee position and qualified for the Super Bowl.
Some of the officials on Boger’s Super Bowl crew have graded perfectly without utilizing the appeals process. In Boger’s case, he has reached the Super Bowl when the requirements that have always been known are forgotten and when the grades he actually achieved are ignored.
“The officials are pissed off, because they see what is happening right in front of them,” said Matthew, the former official. “But, they also don’t blame Jerome because he is just a part of the process.”
“They know when mistakes are ignored,” said Charles, referring to his colleagues. “They know when an administrative error such as a 12-men penalty doesn’t result in an official getting shut out of the playoffs, but instead [he gets an assignment to] the Super Bowl.”
But, out of 121 active officials, why hasn’t one stepped forward and threatened to expose this mess, either through a lawsuit or grievance with the union? “It’s not like any of the guys can do anything about it. If they sue or file a grievance, they will be shut out of any playoff assignments, or they could lose their job,” said Matthew.
We contacted the NFL Referees Association for a comment, and they had not responded at the time of publication. The league also declined to discuss Boger specifically, as they have not publicly revealed his assignment. We did not attempt to contact Boger, because it is against league policy for officials to speak with the media during the season.
The current culture of the officiating department has slowly begun to erode. “It used to be when Art McNally and Jerry Seeman were [directors of officiating], they were generally left alone to run the department,” said Charles. “The commissioner — both Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue — kept it that way for obvious reasons. Officiating is the integrity of the game. To have an owner, a league official, or anyone else have a hand in the officiating would jeopardize the integrity of the game.”
Tagliabue stepped down as commissioner in 2006, and he was succeeded by Roger Goodell. Ray Anderson soon was elevated to Goodell’s Number 2 as executive vice president of football operations. Under Anderson’s jurisdiction included a wide array of disciplines, including the officiating department, which previously was independent.
When Mike Pereira, the vice president of officiating, announced in 2009 that he was leaving the league, Anderson lead the search to replace Pereira. After interviewing accomplished officiating candidates such as Bill Vinovich — who was working as an NFL officiating supervisor at the time — and Walt Anderson — an NFL referee who also worked as the officiating supervisor in the Big 12 Conference — Ray Anderson rebooted the process and sought new applicants.
He eventually hired Carl Johnson. Johnson, during his tenure, acceded his control in the department to Anderson. “Ray Anderson had his hands in running, controlling, and dictating to the officiating department,” said Charles.
Anderson also was one of the lead negotiators for the league in the officials’ collective bargaining, which lasted until after the contract expired. The league locked out the union officials and Anderson had approximately 20 crews of unqualified replacement officials take the field while the league and the referees union continued negotiating. “He was just toxic to the whole process,” says Matthew.
Anderson is likely leaving his position as executive vice president and Johnson is returning to officiating on the field. The replacement for Johnson is underway, but Anderson is still a major part of choosing a successor. “The process is underway,” is all that the league would divulge to us.
Matthew says that Anderson was involved in the playoff assignments and believes that Anderson cherry-picked Boger for the Super Bowl position. Charles agrees and says this is the conclusion of the officiating staff.
“If you asked on-field [officials] and supervisors about it, they’d all nod their head to confirm it, just like me. We’ve all seen it and lived it.”
Images: Bill Baptist/Houston Texans; Alex Morphin; NFL handout photo