NFL teams have no more bye weeks for the rest of the 2020 season.
That means only one crew will be on a bye week in Week 17 (16 games, 17 crews).
With covid-19 a constant threat, the NFL has to be crossing its fingers that full crews of seven will be able to take the field.
Virus forces late changes in the summer
When it became clear that covid-19 would still be with us this fall, the NFL gave its officials the chance to opt out of the season with a guarantee that their job was safe for 2021. Five on-field officials and two replay officials took that option.
In response, the NFL hired five new officials in the late summer.
The NFL also began working on a contingency plan to have crews of five call a game in case there was a staff shortage due to an outbreak, or if two officials tested positive for covid-19 before the game.
So far, we’ve had seven person crews take to the field each week. If an official tested positive for the virus or otherwise came in contact with someone testing positive, the NFL assigned another official from a crew on a bye week to substitute, or an official worked two games in one week (Thursday night, then Sunday afternoon for example).
But now, since there are no more team byes, all but one crew works each week. No other reserves. If covid-19 forces several officials to have to isolate, expect officials to work two games a week. The NFL will make every effort to field a crew of seven.
There has always been a full crew
We have scoured the record books and we cannot find a game where an officiating crew started the game missing a person. We can safely say that it hasn’t happened in the Super Bowl era.
But there have been a few close calls.
Referee Jim Tunney spoke about head linesman Burl Toler having a game in 1978 on the same day as an assassination at San Francisco city hall, where he worked. Tunney offered to start the game shorthanded, but Toler pressed on.
In 1989, referee Bob McElwee became ill before a game in San Diego where the Chargers hosted the Broncos. It was too late to fly in another referee. But, NFL got a seventh official to the game on time. Back judge Jim Poole was in the area and wasn’t working that Sunday. Poole worked the game to fill out the crew of seven. Rookie head linesman Tom White (who would become a full time referee next season), worked referee for that game, and Poole worked as the head linesman.
A similar scenario happened in Green Bay in Week 9 of the 2014 season. Side judge Jeff Lamberth took ill, and there wasn’t time to fly in another side judge. So, umpire Tony Michalek, who worked a few seasons as a line judge in the Big Ten Conference before becoming an umpire, drove up to Green Bay. Michalek worked as a line judge while “regular” line judge Tim Podraza took Lamberth’s place at side judge.
It was radical, but the game went off with seven officials.
What if the referee position can’t officiate?
Each crew has a designated emergency referee that would take the white hat if the regular referee had to leave the game or couldn’t start the game due to illness. This substitute referee usually worked the position in college.
Also, each crew has a contingency plan for working as a crew of six. Usually the back judge or line judge position is sacrificed and the officials adjust their coverage areas.
Week 17 looms
As of now, all Week 17 games are scheduled for Sunday. Although it is always possible some games will be shuffled to Saturday, Monday or Tuesday if there are covid-19 concerns, the games are scheduled so that teams are vying for the same playoff position play at the same time.
With only one bye team to draw from, plus one additional swing official available, and no double-up opportunities, the Week 17 crunch has caught the league shorthanded in the past. In 2011, field judge Terry Brown worked as an umpire in the season finale when two umpires were sidelined and only one substitute available.
I doubt the NFL would postpone a game if both teams are healthy and there are five officials available on site to work the contest. If time allows, there could be a few frantic schedule shuffles to make sure the battle for the division crown has seven officials while the battle for the basement might have six officials.
The NFL season has come off much better than I anticipated.
Now, the league holds its breath to complete the final three weeks.
The officials are masking up and holding their breath, too.