Three NFL officials will audition this preseason for future referee openings. Deep judges Jonah Monroe, Land Clark, and Don Willard will work all or part of a game at the referee position with a regular referee and other NFL observers watching their performance.
The NFL used to send potential referees to work the white hat in NFL Europe. The AAF was a promising pipeline, but the league didn’t make it a full season. The XFL could become a pipeline in the future.
The NFL watches its officials closely. If someone is having a successful career, and display the needed tools to be a referee, officiating senior vice-president Al Riveron and his staff discuss possibly becoming a referee. Almost all NFL referee candidates have previous collegiate experience at the referee position; however it is not a requirement. For instance, Walt Anderson and former referee Dale Hamer didn’t work referee in college.
The NFL likes to get between 10-15 years out of an official at the referee position. That means the NFL wants to bequeath the white hat by the time the official is in his early 50s. But, that rule is not hard and fast.
Here is a brief overview of the three officials auditioning for referee.
Clark begins his second season as a NFL official as a side judge (number 130) on Adrian Hill’s crew. (This is Hill’s first season as a referee)
It was a bit of a surprise that the NFL hired Clark in 2018, because he is in his mid-50s. To my knowledge, that makes Clark the oldest NFL rookie official in the Super Bowl era.
Clark was a referee for several years in the Pac-12 conference. We almost always saw him referee a New Year’s Day bowl game. He also worked the college football national championship game. He has impeccable credentials.
Since Clark was a rookie last year, he wasn’t eligible for a playoff game. But, he had to have a good year because he’s getting an audition.
Clark is in phenomenal physical shape and could easily put in 10 years as a referee. Also, a shorter-term tenure at referee by Clark could help the NFL space out referee turnover in the next 10-20 years and not have a mass exodus at the position like the past two years. If the NFL wants Clark to be a referee, it should happen in the next one or two openings.
Clark will work as referee for the Colts-Bengals Week 4 preseason game.
Willard begins his second season (number 58) as a side judge on Brad Rogers’ crew. (This is Rogers’ first season as a referee.)
He worked as a deep wing and referee in the Big Ten, calling several bowl games. I saw him work in person several times, and he has all the tools necessary to lead a NFL crew.
Like Clark, Willard was a rookie last year and wasn’t eligible for a playoff game, but getting an audition in year two shows the NFL has confidence in him.
He’s in his late 40s and could put in a strong 15-plus years as a referee.
Willard will audition for referee during the Cardinals-Broncos Week 4 preseason game.
Monroe is beginning his fifth season working as a side judge on Jerome Boger’s crew.
He’s worked in the playoffs in two out of three years eligible, including a divisional playoff game last year.
Monroe worked in the American Athletic Conference in college — pictured above at an officiating clinic in 2015 with Terry Killens, a rookie umpire in the NFL this year — mostly as a deep wing. He worked a few non-conference, early-season games as a referee.
I will be very interested to see Monroe work at the white hat and the NFL is taking a hard look at him. Time and age are also on his side.
Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers fans can see Monroe in action tonight in Chicago in a Week 1 preseason game.
No done deals
A referee audition does not guarantee that the official will become a referee, but these auditions do serve as a tea-leaf road map to see who the NFL is considering. It’s a matter of performance, timing, age and the number of white hat retirements.
Let the auditions begin.