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

Now, there are still some lingering questions and ripple effects from the league’s drastic action.



To say that the unprecedented move by the NFL to fire down judge Hugo Cruz has sent shock waves through the sport seems to understate the impact. When Cruz was fired this week, which came to light on Thursday in a Football Zebras exclusive, it was the first time in the Super Bowl era that the NFL fired an official midseason, rather than waiting for the offseason. Prior to that, there are references to the AFL’s nascent years of an immediate termination being made, but these have taken on an air of an urban legend and haven’t been confirmed. Suffice to say, no one can remember this happening before.

NFL fires down judge Hugo Cruz

Now, there are still some lingering questions and ripple effects from the league’s drastic action.

1. This was not only about one call

Grades are behind the firewall of the NFL, largely because one’s job performance in any private-sector employment is a confidential matter. That’s not to say that there isn’t a general sense among officials of their performance. When injuries are factored in, conclusions can be drawn from the postseason assignments of officials. When the officiating department was under the supervision of Jerry Seeman in the 1990s, an official that did not grade playoff level in two consecutive seasons was on notice to step up in the third. Missing a third postseason was seen as a death sentence.

There had been indications already, as we reported earlier, that Cruz’s future with the league was in jeopardy. While in recent years, there have been some seemingly random shuffles to the game assignments in the final one-third of the season, Cruz was apparently moved off of primetime games. By itself, this is not a disciplinary action against an official — just as when Pete Morelli’s crew in 2015 was supposedly “demoted” off a Sunday night game — but there was a clear indication that there was an underlying concern of a mistake being magnified in front of a national audience.

But was Cruz’s performance as poor in 2017 as we are being lead to believe? Retired referee and NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay addressed this in a tweet this week.

McAulay is right to question this, because McAulay was also assigned as an alternate in what would be his final postseason in the NFL. This puts Cruz roughly parallel to McAulay in performance compared to others at their position, if taken strictly at face value. Given McAulay’s very strong performance in other seasons, this does appear to be a mismatch. Since the controversy surrounding the Super Bowl assignments in the 2012 season, there has been more emphasis placed on improvement of performance. Under Blandino, the tier system that McAulay references was introduced, which allowed other subjective evaluation factors to be considered in playoff assignments. Part of the reason for this was to give incentive to officials and not give up on a season that started with a few negative grades. This means Cruz could have been in the third tier — no playoff assignment, subject to additional training, and facing possible termination if there’s no improvement — and bumped up to the lower second tier, enough that some late season bright spots on his record were rewarded with an alternate assignment. 

What were the other infractions in 2018 that caused Cruz to be let go? That is not exactly clear. One of the reasons Football Zebras does not give our own grades to officials is that is requires intensive study of the game film in order to fairly make those assessments. A missed false start that appears on a touchdown highlight is much, much more visible than an official that is not employing accepted officiating mechanics. While we do not have specifics on the infractions that Cruz had this year, with the exception of one, our sources have confirmed that there have been longstanding performance issues.

2. Firing may have come from above

We may never know who advanced the decision to fire Cruz, but there is speculation in officiating circles that senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron carried out the order from above, either from commissioner Roger Goodell or executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent. In 2015, when side judge Rob Vernachi failed to recognize the clock operator ran 18 seconds off the clock, he was suspended one game. It was later revealed that it wasn’t the decision that of Dean Blandino, the head of officiating at the time, but at the insistence of Vincent. 

Only those who were in the room would know for certain, but the path to the termination probably began in a Monday morning meeting in league headquarters. Riveron reviews key plays from Sunday for Goodell, Vincent, and other executives, including disciplinary czar Jon Runyan. Since the Chargers touchdown was widely circulated both in the Cleveland media and on social media, it was likely a topic at the meeting. Presumably, Cruz’s history was known by Goodell and Vincent, and it is not outside of the realm of possibility that the die was cast by one of them. Another possibility is that in the meeting Riveron, who we’ve previously noted needs a relatively controversy-free season for his own job security, proposed such a drastic action in front of his superiors in order to burnish his own reputation of taking a hard line against officiating controversies.

3. Firing/suspensions as punishments

We have stated before, the threat of punishment does not improve officiating. This does not mean that officials should avoid consequences for poor performance or egregious errors, particularly for misapplication of the rules or administrative errors. Things that happen at game speed and require a split-second judgment, as much as it may affect the game or a team’s momentum, must be counted in the regular grading system and not subject to extraordinary measures.

If officials operated under such a system — let alone any employee in any other line of work — it does not translate into better performance. If anything, it detracts from one’s focus when it is crucial. The grading system that is in place is a sufficient method for performance evaluation. Suspensions have been rarely employed, and the most recent one, as previously noted, originated from above the officiating department.

In this case, it appears that the underlying tenet has been followed, although it comes with the unprecedented trigger-pull in the middle of the season. Even though this is apparently for performance over “a sustained period,” as a source confirmed to Football Zebras, it is certainly on the minds of all officials that one call, one incredibly visible call, could result in termination, especially for those whose own grades are near (or below) Cruz’s. Maybe there won’t be immediate consequences, but there could be a housecleaning in the offseason.

Punishments for a ‘fast public-relations fix’ do not improve officiating

4. Recruiting and developing new officials

One of the glaring issues brought forth by this incident is that the recruitment and development system failed. Conference USA officiating coordinator and former NFL referee Gerry Austin recruited Cruz to work in Conference USA in 2009. Austin saw potential and advanced Cruz’s name to the NFL for officiating scouts to evaluate his talent. Cruz was fast-tracked to the NFL by working two stints in the NFL’s officiating development program, and was in the NFL after 6 seasons at Conference USA. This entire arc from joining Conference USA through his NFL termination spans less than 10 years.

Looking at the officials that were hired after going through the Officiating Development Program, former Conference USA officials have had the most difficulty achieving a postseason assignment. Listed below are the on-field postseason assignments attained by conference — limited to officials in their third season (thus, have been eligible for at least 1 playoff game) through sixth season (earliest hires from the ODP program).

  Officials (3rd-6th season) Total postseason eligible Total postseasons assigned
ACC 1 3 2
American Athletic 3 7 3
Big 12 5 10 8
Big Ten 3 8 6
Conference USA 4 7 2*
Pac-12 4† 13 8
SEC 4 10 4‡
*includes 1 postseason assignment that was lost due to injury, †does not include 1 official who was injured in his eligible seasons and retired in 2017, ‡does not include 1 Pro Bowl assignment.

The NFL has been severely lacking an effective development and promotion process. Development and scouting initiatives are handled by Wayne Mackie, who assumed a newly created vice president role in that discipline in 2017. For now, we can’t pass judgment on Mackie’s tenure, as development is a process that takes many years. But what we can point to is the lack of a training ground or development league like NFL Europe. In that league, officials traveled to Europe to work approximately four games; where potential officials teamed up with incredible mentors who were current NFL officials. There has been nothing comparable to that training experience and performance evaluation opportunity.

5. Union grievance

Former NFL referee and executive director of the NFL Referees Association Scott Green issued a statement that condemned the firing. “The NFLRA will protect the collectively bargained rights of all officials and will challenge this reckless decision through the Grievance process.” The union is doing exactly what it is designed to do: protect and fight for the rights on behalf of its members. 

But there is not even the slightest chance that Cruz gets his job back. While the NFLRA was able to successfully reverse firings in the past, these occurred at a time when officiating was not under the social media microscope it is today. Even if the union could pull off the impossible, it would intensify the scrutiny on Cruz, as fans and even team personnel will be following the crew assignments to see who gets the crew he is on. Additionally, almost every broadcast would feature a tight shot on Cruz and a rehashing of his history for the viewing audience.

The more likely outcome is that the NFLRA files its grievance on behalf of Cruz, and then reaches a financial settlement with the league. It will potentially be a windfall for Cruz, because the NFL does not want a protracted legal fight. Under a wrongful termination suit brought by referee Ben Dreith in 1991, the officials’ grades became part of the evidence; in 2018 there is no way the NFL allows that information to get into the public domain.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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