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2018 Conference Championships

Championship game officials from Southern California raises ‘concern’ in the NFL

A report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Pro Bowl Sunday reaches back to the NFC Championship Game to stack another layer on the controversy regarding the officiating.



A report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Pro Bowl Sunday reaches back to the NFC Championship Game to stack another layer on the controversy regarding the officiating.

Four of the officials live in Southern California within at least a 2-hour drive of the Rams home stadium (which, I understand, in typical conditions is a radius of about 5 miles); one from Los Angeles County, two from Orange County, and one from Santa Barbara County, according to a Football Zebras internal database. According to Schefter, “there is some concern in league circles about the NFL’s judgment in allowing four game officials who live in Southern California to work the game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints, league sources told ESPN.”

Two of those four officials were the covering officials on the controversial hit that resulted in an incomplete pass rather than a penalty, extending the game for the Rams to come back and win. A third official was in a position to assist on the call, who is also one of the four.

      Yrs 2018 crew College Hometown (according to FZ records)
R 52 Bill Vinovich 13   San Diego Lake Forest, Calif.
U 102 Bruce Stritesky 13 Vinovich Embry Riddle Roanoke, Va.
DJ 13 Patrick Turner 5 Corrente Cal State-Long Beach Lakewood, Calif.
LJ 59 Rusty Baynes 9 Boger Auburn-Montgomery Birmingham, Ala.
FJ 97 Tom Hill 20 Hochuli Carson Newman Hackettstown, N.J.
SJ 60 Gary Cavaletto 16 Vinovich Hancock Santa Barbara, Calif.
BJ 30 Todd Prukop 10 Corrente Cal State-Fullerton Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

This is not the first, nor the last, time an official’s hometown has become the source of controversy. Typically the focus, though, would be on the referee position and not the other positions. So, for Super Bowl XIII between the Steelers and Cowboys, head linesman Jerry Bergman Sr. officiated despite living in suburban Pittsburgh. Twenty years later, referee and Minnesota native Bernie Kukar learned that the spot he earned in Super Bowl XXXIII would be revoked if the top-seeded Vikings advanced to the game. That assignment was still tenuous until an overtime field goal in the NFC Championship gave the Falcons the berth. After that incident, it was determined that the league would not penalize an official that way.

Some officials ask to be kept off the home team’s schedule. Walt Anderson has only worked preseason Texans games, despite the fact that he wouldn’t have any allegiances to the newest team in the league. In many cases that is an individual’s preference that drives that decision.

When advancing through the playoffs, there can be multiple considerations in handing out an assignment, particularly if there was a controversy during the regular season. In the 2012 playoffs, head linesman Dana McKenzie was assigned to a playoff game in Washington in error. In the regular season, McKenzie ejected Washington safety DeAngelo Hall, in which Hall alleged verbal abuse from McKenzie. After Football Zebras had published the crew, and D.C. sports reporters started asking questions, the NFL moved McKenzie off the game, just to avoid controversy.

It appears in this case that senior staff in the officiating department chose Vinovich for this game because he had both teams in a game earlier in the season. An officiating source revealed that regular season assignments are handled by vice president of development Wayne Mackie and signed off by senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron; we do not know if that is the case in the postseason.

In any event, while considering the ramifications of the assignments, assigning three officials from the team’s immediate market and another from a secondary market slipped everyone’s scrutiny at 345 Park Avenue. This part of the controversy could have been avoided. No matter who is working the game, the officials would be above reproach; that is never in question. However, this is not the like other cases of one official from the local area, but four.

But, let’s be frank, and perhaps I’ve buried the lede in this. This site and others did mention the two covering officials did have ties to Southern California, and that it wasn’t a disqualifying criteria to work the game. But there is, as Schefter writes, “some concern in league circles … [according to] league sources”? We deal with anonymous sourcing all the time, and we attempt to disclose the reasons why whenever possible. I don’t think Schefter is in on anything, but we can certainly ponder the motives of the league sources.

There is no question that Riveron is in the hot seat this season, and that may extend to other leaders in the officiating department. We noted that Riveron needed a clean season in order to keep his job after controversies that arose in 2017. Riveron can escape blame for the pass interference no-call, since there was nothing he could do to reverse it. By planting this leak to Schefter, a league source can effectively encircle Riveron back into the controversy. Add to the fact that the league has remained mum on the issue — until the commissioner’s annual Super Bowl press conference on Wednesday — and that discussion over the NFL’s antitrust exemption has reached the floor of the U.S. Senate (video below, warning: may cause severe eyeroll) all have kept the controversy at a steady boil.

It lines everything up for the league to have its scapegoat.

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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