From the highlights to the lowlights, the past decade has been full of news, advancements, and controversies in the world of NFL officiating. We live in a very different world we lived in just ten years ago. Without further ado, from the game-changing calls to the broken glass-ceilings, and from the controversial moments to the career achievements, Football Zebras presents this three-part series showcasing the top officiating moments of the 2010s.
NFL creates the Officiating Development Program (2013)
When NFL Europe was in existence under various names in 1991, 1992, and 1995 to 2007, it was a valuable tool for officiating under a concept created by its officiating head Art McNally. At the end of his tenure as the NFL officiating boss, he used the European circuit as a development league for officiating staff. Want to kick the tires on a hot college recruit? Give them a few weeks to work some NFL sanctioned games in Europe. Have an NFL official you want to try out for the referee position? Assign them to games that, in large part, have no impact on anything.
When the NFLEu dissolved, so did a crucial development tool for officiating. As part of the collective bargaining agreement signed with the officials union in 2012, a development program funded by the league would take a number of college recruits through NFL training camps and assign a few to some preseason games. Originally called the Advanced Development Program in 2013, and renamed Officiating Development Program in 2016, the development officials would get some valuable practice at the pro level and have seasoned mentors to assist them. Originally with 21 trainees, the program has now expanded to over 40 recruits.
Some officials came in and left the program, others worked a few seasons, but after that first class of development officials, every newly hired official since 2014 has spent at least one season in the preseason ODP.
Hugo Cruz fired midseason (2018)
Football Zebras was first to report a stunning development in 2018 that down judge Hugo Cruz was relieved of his duties midseason. At the time, such an action during the season had never been taken in the Super Bowl era, with the last evidence of such a move being in the early days of the American Football League.
Many questioned how a midseason firing would have never occurred before. With 15 regular season assignments per year, an official that is on the brink can usually finish out the schedule, potentially relegated to games of little importance. In this case, the NFL moved Cruz between several crews the first few weeks of the season, culminating with a missed false start which resulted in a touchdown.
Firing an official is generally not effective in the broad sense, as the threat of termination does not suddenly improve officiating. But in this situation, the league apparently felt that more damage could result by keeping Cruz on the field. It was not one call that did it, but as a league source said, Cruz was not “maintaining a very high level of performance over a sustained period.”
As of October 2019, Cruz is apparently seeking a settlement with the NFL, but declined our repeated requests for comment.
The No-Call heard round the world (2018 season)
The Saints were poised to take a lead in the waning minutes of the 2018 NFC Championship Game. Who am I kidding? If you are reading this, you know doubt know the sequence of events where Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was guilty of defensive pass interference against Tommylee Lewis of the Saints, yet no flag was thrown on the play. The no-call stalled the drive, and the Saints then surrendered a pair of long field goals to the Rams at the end of the fourth quarter and in overtime.
The reasons why down judge Patrick Turner and side judge Greg Cavaletto did not throw their flags are not exactly known. Both officials are seen saying “bang-bang” to each other, officiating parlance that the interference occurred close enough to the arrival of the ball that it would not be a foul. Compared to other marginal pass interference calls in the postseason, it would appear there was a direction entering the playoffs to call pass interference a little looser. While it was still clearly pass interference, the margin was actually less when compared to the apparent revised standard. Whatever the case, the no-call spawned lawsuits, spurred calls for the commissioner to override the final score, and lead to Saints ownership calling for officiating reform.
In the end, the lasting effect was a hastily contrived rule revision pushed by coaches, overriding the Competition Committee, to place pass interference — either called or not called — through the replay process. The revised rule was an end-around for the normal rule revision process, and owners were forced to give the Competition Committee eleventh-hour authority to polish the rough edges of the new rule. It was still not enough.
Whether it was the rule itself, its interpretation, or its application — or a combination of all the above — there has been universal condemnation over how pass interference has been reviewed.
Mike Pereira goes to Fox (2010)
When vice president of officiating Mike Pereira left his post following the 2009 season, his plan was to move to the west coast to be closer to family. He was done with the rigors that being the head of officiating brought upon him, the daily grind during the season, and visibility that exceeded the commissioner. He then got an offer from Fox Sports executive David Hill which Pereira could not refuse.
In the first week of the 2010 season, a touchdown catch by Lions receiver Calvin Johnson was actually not a catch under the rules at the time. (More on that coming up.) Pereira jumped in from his perch at the Fox Sports studios in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, and affirmed this was not a catch prior to referee Gene Steratore announcing the reversal. (To their credit, announcers Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick were making that conclusion, but Pereira obviously added more authority.) From there, Pereira was the facepalm solution to what football broadcasting needed.
Rival networks were slow to roll out their own rules experts, but now they have become a indispensable part of the broadcast team.
Super Bowl XLVII officiating assignment controversy (2012 season)
This was the other big story of the decade that Football Zebras broke. A drumbeat of dissatisfaction over the grading process was brewing all season, and near the end of November 2012, multiple sources had concluded that, despite the grades, the NFL had already determined who would be officiating the Super Bowl. The first story that Jerome Boger was assigned to Super Bowl XLVII was floated on Dec. 30, and on Dec. 31 the league denied that the playoff officials were set. On Jan. 15, we confirmed the entire Super Bowl crew.
As I was able to corroborate more of the story with two key sources in addition to other supporting sources, it was becoming clear that actual downgrades were being reversed on appeal for Boger. My sources said 8 “dings” were reversed, and in the ensuing controversy the league admitted that there were a number of grade reversals, insisting the process was followed.
In the end, this was not about Boger, as this situation did not involve his actions, but those that were done at the league office. The overarching issue was not any one official’s performance, but that the grading system was being tilted to achieve a predetermined result. Fingers were pointed at the executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson having hands-on influence in the playoff assignments, which could not, in the end, actually be proven.
In the following years, the playoff assignment procedures were slightly tweaked to a three-tier system that is largely set by grades, but includes other factors. It is still not completely transparent to the officiating staff, but it is at least an improvement to previous seasons. And, as for Football Zebras, we were no longer an obscure blog.
What is a catch?
The catch process started to get new life when Raiders receiver Louis Murphy was denied a touchdown in an opening night Monday Night Football game in 2009. The rules of the catch had been tightened up to suit replay reviews, and began to frustrate players and fans. It hit a new level when Calvin Johnson had a Lions game-winning touchdown reversed in the first game of the 2010 season.
And it just got worse and worse.
The logical trade-off that the Competition Committee made was that of the few controversial calls there were in a season, there would be many more controversial fumbles. While the catch process had included control plus two feet down plus an element of time in the rules since 1938, there were various ways in which that last step was expressed in the rules. Variations of maintaining control long enough “to perform an act common to the game” or “to perform a football move” were used, and were sufficient for most catches in any given season. However, the Competition Committee’s trade-off was now tipping with more passes being ruled incomplete than casual fans would tolerate.
A player going to the ground proved to be tricky, because if the catch process is completed, and the receiver immediately slams into the ground, did he actually have the ball long enough? Is falling an act common/football move? In the end, it wound up stretching the time element, and in 2017 the catch process was simplified.
It was not as simple as removing a few words, because interpretations still had to be established to ensure consistency. A player who is falling to the ground still has to maintain possession into the ground, but the receiver does have opportunities to perform an act common to the game in between. The simplification wound up returning an official’s football sense to determining a catch, which might actually create an inconclusive call in replay. While there will still be controversy, the rule change has brought more common sense to the catch process.
Rules changes emphasize concussions
As the game and equipment evolved, the helmet became much more of a blunt-force weapon rather than a protective device. In the 1950s and 1960s, it would be crazy to lead with one’s helmet to initiate contact. The plastic was so thin and the padding woefully inadequate by today’s standards.
At the beginning of the decade, the rules were already being revised to be aware of concussions and spinal injury. ESPN quietly ended the Jacked Up segments of headhunting and bellringing at the end of the aughts. A defenseless player became a defined thing, and an array of unnecessary head contact was removed.
Most significantly, the “use of the helmet” rule made it illegal to initiate contact by lowering the head. While there are gaps in the rule as written, it has changed tackling techniques. Those who chose not to adapt, are fined, then suspended, then suspended again, then disappeared. With the repeated infractions by Vontaze Burfict in this area, the unprecedented 12-game suspension theoretically could have saved his life.
Replay decisions centralized at league headquarters (2017)
This site once presented 10 reasons why the NFL would not go to a centralized model. And, while that held up for a time, eventually the pressure to revamp the system was too much.
The officiating command center was initially looped in to the replay discussions between the referee and the replay official. While the referee certainly could insist on making his own call, doing so would go against what the boss’s interpretation was. That would be a certain downgrade to the referee.
Eventually, they dropped the pretense and just had the head of officiating make the call. Initially, this was Dean Blandino, but he left the league before this was even implemented. Incoming senior vice president Al Riveron became the replay decision maker, backed up by the vice president of replay and the vice president of development in cases where multiple calls came in at once.
The one thing that centralized replay did do was to focus all of the blame for controversial calls to one individual. In a technical sense, the replay decision-maker cannot make a mistake in this case, because the call would be supported by the head of officiating — the same person. In reality, there have been a fair share of calls that seem to defy consistency. Additionally, in the first couple of seasons, replay tended to be a little too hypertechnical, requiring a bit of a course correction.
At the end of the decade, most of the ire in the replay arena has been rightly focused on pass interference reviews which have had an unpredictable ebb and flow through the season that many coaches gave up on challenging these calls.
The worst year of officiating … ever! (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
It’s an overworn chestnut that officiating sucks and the referee is in the tank for your opponent. The truth is that the rate of accuracy is exceedingly high, and at a much higher bar than the players. Would it be acceptable for an official to get 74.4% of calls correct?
To that end, there is much to improve about officiating. What could be done today? Well, if it was that simple, it would have already been done. There are gaps in scouting, recruiting, development, training, public engagement, rules knowledge, classroom and clinic work, coaching, grading, disciplinary actions, assignment, morale, leadership, managing turnover, and embracing new technologies.
Is officiating slipping? Or are we more aware of tiny details with high-definition replays and biased by viral blasts from social media? This is difficult to say when comparing to where we were 10 years ago, 1 year ago, even 1 week ago.
When Paul Tagliabue was commissioner, he convened an Officiating 2000 panel at the turn of the century that brought in officiating representatives past and present, as well as the “officiating adjacent” such as coaches, players, and administrators. Tagliabue told Football Zebras “Some of us felt that this critical balance of individual accountability and crew collaboration had deteriorated, and we convened a special working group of former coaches and officials to review NFL officiating.”
Ten years removed from the retirement of the head of officiating Art McNally, the Officiating 2000 panel made its recommendation to the league. “After deep reviews and deliberation, the group concluded that Art’s emphasis on accountability and teamwork was critical and had to be recaptured,” Tagliabue said.
As we turn to a new decade, it is probably a good idea to revisit an Officiating 2020 panel. And if the NFL is looking for anyone, consider this a self-nomination.