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The science of building good NFL crews



As NFL officials prepare for their mini-clinic in May, the NFL officiating office is building 17 officiating crews. Exiting senior vice president for officiating Dean Blandino will oversee the rest of the offseason (which ends May 15 for officials), so he has a say in the crew makeup. Over the past few years, there have been many crew changes and position changes to make sure all crews are strong.

New hires ‘unlearn what they have learned’

The NFL hired four new officials for this year. These officials are learning new ways, learning new rules and transitioning to the pro game. The NFL and its current officials will work with the new hires to help them prepare for their inaugural season. There are several differences between the NCAA and NFL rule codes. It is up to the new hires to wash those college rules out of their system and soak in the new rules.

The NFL makes sure to put a rookie official with strong officials near him or her to help if the rookie gets into a jam.

But, no matter how much the rookies prepare, almost all officials agree that it takes five seasons to feel completely comfortable calling the pro game.

Mix and match for the best crews

While the new hires get ready for the clinics the NFL is putting together the best crews. In the 1970s and 1980s, The NFL made crews with location in mind. There were east coast crews and west coast crews with hardly any change. Many went unchanged for several years, and changed only when there was a retirement, a struggling official needed a new crew or an official became a referee.

The regional crew concept ended in the late 1980s, Officiating bosses then started changing crew members more often to help the crews succeed.

If a head linesman was struggling, the NFL placed him with a strong side judge. Or, the NFL placed a struggling official with a strong referee with the reputation of a patient teacher. 

Additionally, the NFL made sure personalities were a good complement. If there was an umpire with a fiery personality, the NFL put him with a calm referee. Or, if a field judge made great calls but got flustered when explaining a call to a coach, the NFL made sure he worked with a strong line judge.

The NFL still considers these factors when making crews today.

Position changes make strong crews?

If the NFL front office has trouble making things work, they are quick to have officials change positions. During Dean Blandino’s tenure, the officiating office has made several position changes. Head linesmen and line judges swap positions often. And, the NFL has made several changes over the years at the deep judge positions. For instance, the recently retired Bob Waggoner was a side judge, back judge and field judge in his 20-year career. Many NFL officials from the days of yore stayed at one position their entire 20-year-plus career. Not anymore.

The NFL makes position changes for several reasons. Sometimes, the NFL wants to invest in a future umpire, but there aren’t any open umpire positions. So they hire the official at another position and move them to umpire the first chance. Jim Quirk Sr., Hendi Ancich, Neil Gereb and Ron Botchan all come into the league at line judge and moved to umpire within a few years.

The NFL also makes changes to help an official who was struggling. Adrian Hill worked as a short wing for several years and did not make the playoffs. The NFL moved him to field judge and he qualified for the playoffs immediately after the change. Sometimes looking at the game from a different angle is the key that turns a borderline official into a playoff official.

Or, the NFL might look at the roster of field judges, back judges and side judges and see that one position has several stronger officials. So, they will have officials change positions to make sure all positions have several great officials. But, does this yearly switching help officials individually? While the deep judges look for the same things, the mechanics for each position are very different. Is a good for an official to have to adapt to different mechanics every one or two years? A comfortable official is an official who does things by rote and their mechanics are automatic. If they are concentrating on mechanics they could miss a rule or a call.

As you can see the NFL doesn’t draw names out of a hat when making crews. There is a science involved to give the teams and fans the best officiating crews every week.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"