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9 officiating stories of the 2020 season

2020 was a unique season. May we never again have another like it.



It has been a very interesting season. While enjoyable, I hope we never experience one like it again.

As we gear up for the playoffs, here is what stood out to me as I zebra watched this fall and early winter.

1. We made it!

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Frankly, I never thought we’d have a full NFL season. And, I thought socially-distanced officiating was impossible.

But, the NFL and its officials made it work and work well. From masked officials, electronic whistles, and regional crews, the NFL had every game staffed with a full crew – although Week 17 was a close call (more on that later).

Hats off to the NFL and the officiating office for calling games during a pandemic.

2. Fewer fouls this year

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While we brace ourselves for a pass interference flag on every contested pass, the average number of fouls actually dropped this year.

According to Kevin Seifert of ESPN, NFL officials called an average of 13.1 fouls a game in 2020, down from an average of 16.2 fouls per game in 2019.

Most of that is due to fewer holding calls.

We will have to wait for a few years to see if this was an outlier or the beginning of a trend.

3. Call of the year – actually two of them

Line judge Carl Johnson and field judge Nate Jones nailed two critical sideline catches on back-to-back plays in the Week 5 game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

Once an official makes a big call, they can’t pause to catch their breath. Another big call is right around the corner.

4. Officials wearing beards?!

We have never seen officials wearing beards during a season until this year. The NFL allowed its staff to put the razor away during No Shave November, or “Movember”, in order to raise awareness for men’s health.

The razors came back out in December, but scruff was in this November.

5. NBC censors referee announcements

We all know that there is R-rated language on the football field. When the referee opens his microphone to make an announcement, the crowd noise usually drowns out player profanity.

But with near empty stadiums that year thanks to covid-19, “f” and “s” bombs were easier to to hear. So NBC, most conspicuously, used the seven-second delay “dump” button and garbled referees’ penalty announcements in case a naughty word (I wonder if Santa John Travolta was watching?) slipped through.

6. Down judge gets run over in celebration

Down judge Tripp Sutter was the victim of a Dolphins stampede this season. They recovered a fumble and the players got up to run to the end zone camera to pose.

They ran over Sutter in their zeal and haste to get to that camera.

Sutter had to leave the game and entered concussion protocol. While he didn’t return to the game, he was back the next week.

Thankfully, we didn’t see many officials get injured on the field this year. I was worried about Sutter when I saw that footage.

7. Proud moment in officiating history

No matter your politics, there is no denying that 2020 was a year of social upheaval in this country.

The NFL made history in the Week 11 Monday Night Football Game, when it assigned an all African-American crew to the game.

The Big Ten conference assigned an all African-American crew (every position both on and off the field) to the Minnesota-Michigan game in Minneapolis earlier.

8. Most frantic final week ever

Each year we note that Week 17 poses a numbers crunch for officials as all games are on a Sunday and only one crew is on bye.

This year, with spike of NFL officials sidelined because of covid-19 in Week 17, the NFL was scrambling to make sure all games had a full compliment of officials.

Ben, Cam, myself, and a squad of zebra-watchers helped hash out the last-minute subs and swaps that happened just this past week. Kudos to the NFL for making sure every game had a full crew of officials.

9. Best news of all happened after the season

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We held our breath last week as news reported that referee Clay Martin was in the hospital.

But on Monday, came the best news of the season.

We look forward to seeing Martin back out on the field again!

Kudos to the entire NFL officiating staff — field officials, replay staff, administrators, chain gangs, teal hats, K-ball coordinators, everyone.

2020 was a unique season. May we never again have another like it.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"