Commentary by Mark Schultz
We are coming up on a critical few weeks in the NFL as vice president for officiating, Dean Blandino, will be hiring new officials, assigning positions, and beginning the orientation process for the new pro zebras. While 2014 saw a near-record number of retirements – forced or voluntary – I predict we will not see such a drastic change this year.
One year ago, the NFL saw some of the most wide-spread change in a generation as 13 officials retired before the start of the 2014 season and two more officials, Kirk Dornan and Chad Brown, retired in the middle of the season. Other officials missed significant time due to injury or illness and it is unclear whether those officials will answer the bell for 2015.
The NFL already has three slots to fill with the retirements of Brown, Dornan and Tom Stabile. As of now, we don’t know of any more officials who have decided to retire, but there could be more openings as officials evaluate their standing with the league, their age and their health. Also, the NFL could weed out officials who are not performing to standards, creating more openings.
Each official has to pass a physical exam each year during the offseason. In the past, those exams have uncovered health problems forcing officials to retire.
Right now my gut tells me that we won’t see dramatic change in staff for 2015. The NFL saw many officials retire last year and the NFL also weeded out some officials that they felt needed to retire. I think Blandino weeded out the officials he thought needed to go last year, either due to eroded skills or for the sake of bringing in new officials. The NFL needs to manage its roster turnover, and double-digit departures in two straight years would bring in too many inexperienced officials.
This could be the year that the NFL officially breaks the gender barrier and hires a female official full time. Sarah Thomas has spent two years on the advanced training roster, working NFL preseason games, being mentored and being scouted by the NFL. Maia Chaka has also spent time on the advanced training roster, and the NFL could add another female official in the program — possibly Cat Conti, a NCAA Division I official. Whoever is the first female hired, they will feel the pressure to succeed, so I think Blandino wants to make sure the first female official is really ready to go; however the commissioners’ office could be anxious to see history made. “You are going to see one or two female officials this year,” an officiating source told Football Zebras.
New white hats?
Last season saw three new referees appointed including double rookie Brad Allen, who became a referee after the surprise retirement of Mike Carey. Craig Wrolstad and Ron Torbert became white hats to replace the retired Scott Green and Ron Winter. At times, the NFL prods referees to retire if they have a veteran official waiting to be a white hat. The NFL encouraged Gerald Austin to retire to make room for Alberto Riveron to be a referee. There were rumblings that the NFL encouraged Winter to retire after 2014 to make room for a new referee. I don’t think we’ll see something like that happen this year. When Mike Carey suddenly retired, the NFL tapped Allen to replace him. If the NFL were anxious to promote a veteran official to white hat, they would have done so and not assigned Allen. I predict that if a referee retires this year, but will be his own choice and not with any “encouragement.”
The NFL is now in the dark period with its officials. The NFL does not communicate with its officials from now until May 15 — an acknowledgement that the officials are part-time. Once May 15 rolls around we will start to get quite a bit of officiating news. (Be sure to subscribe to our offseason e-mail newsletter to be notified when we have new content.)
Photo: Side judge Tom Hill (from Getty Images)