The confetti is cleared. The countdowns have reset. Tampa is already beginning their preparation to host Super Bowl LV. This means that the NFL offseason has begun, and there are several items on the agenda for the officiating department, both in terms of rules and personnel. The on-field staff is currently in a CBA-mandated dark period, and will remain in this period until May 15 (101 days away, but who’s counting).
Here’s a look at some of the items that will be addressed in the offseason.
White hat depth chart
For the moment, there is one referee position open going into the 2020 season, as Walt Anderson retired to join the NFL front office. In preseason last year, three officials had an on-field audition for referee — Don Willard, Land Clark and Jonah Monroe.
In the past, umpire Barry Anderson has auditioned for a referee position. Anderson just finished calling Super Bowl LIV, so he has the track record as a good official. But, the NFL needs good umpires we well as referees. Could Anderson have found his niche at umpire?
If the NFL sticks to last year’s candidates, I predict Land Clark to get the white hat. The NFL hired Clark two years ago when he was in his mid-50s. He is in great physical condition and could put in a good 10-years at referee. If the NFL is high on his candidacy, he could become a referee in 2020.
It is possible that all three candidates could put on the white hat next year – things are still fluid.
False start/delay of game clock manipulation has to stop!
We saw it a handful of times throughout the regular season and postseason. With more than 5 minutes remaining in the game, a team, typically in punt formation, will take a delay of game, followed by a deliberate false start, in attempt to drain time off the clock. We saw coaches like Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh exploit the tactic, as well as Mike Vrabel who was even flagged in the regular season for going too far and attempting a third consecutive intentional foul.
Albeit paradoxical and, this bending of the rules slows down the game, and I can imagine that this is high on the Competition Committee’s list of potential changes to address during their spring meetings. Under the current rule, 12-3-3:
A team may not commit multiple fouls during the same down in an attempt to manipulate the game clock. Penalty: For multiple fouls to run off time from the game clock: Loss of 15 yards, and the game clock will be reset to where it was at the snap. After the penalty is enforced, the game clock will start on the next snap.
This rule was created in the 2017 offseason as a response to multiple scenarios where, during a play, multiple players will intentionally hold opponents to allow for their ball carrier, typically a punter, to run around the field and kill time off of the clock. Most notably, John Harbaugh successfully attempted this to run all the time off of the game clock in a 2016 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
This rule, however, does not seem to apply to pre-snap fouls and penalties. The semantics of the rule prohibit “multiple fouls”, which is a penalty enforcement term that refers to two or more fouls on a play, but does not prohibit “consecutive dead-ball fouls”, which is what is happening in this season’s new strategic trend.
Multiple times, we saw referees approach coaches after deliberately taking their second pre-snap foul. A former NFL official told Football Zebras that the league office had instructed the referees to warn coaches of this tactic once its frequency became more apparent. This official also speculated that the coaches were warned directly about this tactic also, especially as the postseason began, and that teams could face potential fines for these rule-bending strategies.
While some commentators call this tactic brilliant, it seems like more of a mockery of the rules, and for that, I can expect and hope that we won’t see this anymore entering the 2020 NFL season.
Is an “onside attempt” forthcoming?
We saw it in the Alliance of American Football last year. Attempt a 4th and 12 play from a team’s own 28-yard line, and keep the ball if you succeed. It seemed like an innovative idea, where in the NFL, onside kicks are slowly becoming more and more difficult with the league’s new kickoff rules that took effect in the 2018 season.
The officiating department decided to try a similar experiment in the 2020 Pro Bowl. A team may elect to take the ball at their own 25-yard line, and attempt a 4th and 15 play to maintain possession of the ball if they are successful. We actually saw it attempted in the Pro Bowl, and, let’s just say, it didn’t go well for the NFC All-Stars.
While the attempt was not successful, it seems like a good idea to me, especially in a league that is promoting more offensive power. No disrespect to the skill of the kicker to kick the ball just at the right angle to pop it up on a traditional onside kick, but they seem to have turned into last-ditch efforts of luck and finger-crossing to hope the kicking team recovers the football. Unlike in the AAF, the experiment from the Pro Bowl did not have any score differential requirements. This may be something that is looked at in the near future to possibly add to the rule, or leave omitted.
The Competition Committee will look at the rule experiment from the Pro Bowl, discuss it, and possibly add it to the owners’ meeting agenda in March. We may see a new way to keep the game alive in the 2020 season for teams who are clawing their way back into a game.
A review of pass interference review
Last September, as I previewed the 2019 season, I addressed the one-year experimental rule where instant replay could review pass interference. In that article I said, “This could get ugly,” and sadly, I was correct.
For all the people who wanted instant replay for pass interference to be a silver bullet, well, that gun jammed. No matter if the judgment takes a nanosecond on the field or 90 seconds via instant replay, pass interference is a subjective call.
In the second half of the season, it got to a point where coaches stopped challenging pass interference. It wasn’t given that the centralized replay center would come riding to their rescue.
The NFL Competition Committee will revisit the pass interference replay challenge rule this offseason. If the rule survives, it is sure to be modified.
Walt Anderson’s new gig
Referee Walt Anderson has left the field after 24 seasons and 19 postseason assignments to take a senior vice president position with the league office that was negotiated as part of the new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association. Anderson will oversee officiating training and development.
Anderson will seemingly take over, or at least have a major role in, the Officiating Development Program, or ODP. Spring leagues such as the XFL, starting up this weekend, use officials in the ODP. Five of the six rookie officials in the 2019 season officiated in the Alliance of American Football. Line judge Jeff Bergman will be working with the XFL this spring as a trainer, and he may be an important asset to Anderson once new hires are selected for the 2020 season, if any are selected from the XFL.
Anderson will oversee the entire staff, but have a targeted emphasis on officials in their first three seasons. That may mean a lot will be on Anderson’s plate right from the start because the zebra watching community is asking…
Are we in the midst of a mass exodus?
An ESPN report from October said that the NFL has offered a retirement incentive to the 22 NFL officials who have 20 or more seasons of officiating experience, provided they retire before the start of the 2020 season. In addition to Walt Anderson’s ascension to the league office, we have already confirmed that umpire Jeff Rice, line judge Byron Boston, and down judge Mike Spanier will not be returning in 2020, but will there be any more?
The average official from the 2019 season had 11 years of officiating experience. With a major shift in experience, we may see this number decrease this offseason.
This leaves 18 NFL officials who have served a score on the field, including referees Carl Cheffers and Tony Corrente. We have seen retirements from the field as late as June, so who knows what the offseason holds for roster turnover.
What the future holds for Al Riveron
When the NFL announced Walt Anderson for his new position, a spokesperson said Al Riveron’s position was “a separate matter.” While that might have set off alarm bells for some, I don’t think it spells immediate danger for Riveron.
Riveron has a thankless job, and I don’t think many officials are pining away for it. After the outrage of the NFC Championship Game after the 2018 season, the NFL had the perfect excuse to make a change at senior vice president of officiating. Riveron stayed.
Riveron, like Dean Blandino, Carl Johnson, Mike Pereira, Jerry Seeman, Art McNally and Mark Duncan, have all been criticized for their officiating leadership and endured calls for their ouster. It comes with the territory.
While we have had legitimate critique of his tenure, Riveron has proved to be an effective officiating leader. I think we’ll be seeing Riveron at the helm this fall and beyond.