Football Zebras commentary
Editor’s note: The Wild Card assignments were released sooner than expected, but our predictions below were set before we received the assignment list.
Our annual tradition is to predict which referees are assigned to the postseason and the Pro Bowl. As we find every year, there tends to be a razor-thin line at the playoff cut, so an omission on this list does not necessarily mean we thought the referee was not worthy of a playoff assignment. We simply ran out of room.
As the season begins to wane, the discussion among officials starts to ramp up as to who is grading high, and some of those conversations are picked up on our radar through our contacts. This year, those conversations have been replaced with discussions of everyone’s wellbeing, confusion over the ever-changing schedule, and questions if a full regular season and playoffs are even viable this year. Priorities are definitely different this year.
So there’s really no baseline to work from, the crystal ball is cloudy, and the tea leaves can only make a fine cup of tea.
Entering the Wild Card round, I’ve moved the cut line down two spots on account of two new playoff games, although there could be some other method of assigning these games this year. Scott Novak has settled in well to his white-hat position, and in his first year of eligibility, I can see him at least earning a Wild Card spot. Shawn Smith has been a consistent playoff presence in his early career, which I feel continues this year. Also earning that first week assignment are Carl Cheffers and the officials assigned to the Conference Championships (if past practice is followed).
In the Divisional Playoffs, white hat classmates Alex Kemp and Shawn Hochuli continue to impress, as does John Hussey. They continue to demonstrate a methodical control of the game, in spite of having disjointed crews this season.
Bill Vinovich and Clete Blakeman are recurring top-tier referees not by accident, and I feel they have earned a Conference Championship game. Tony Corrente — coming off of a Conference Championship assignment last season — is set to earn his second Super Bowl (XLI, 2006 season).
Every white hat except Land Clark is eligible for a playoff game this year, making these choices tougher.
For the wild card round, I have two officials making their white hat debut and many happy returns for another. I have Bill Vinovich and Alex Kemp working the wild card round, but that won’t be their last game. Two officials will toss their first playoff coin — Brad Rogers and Scott Novak. Jerome Boger hasn’t officiated a playoff game since his Super Bowl XLVII assignment. That changes this year. Veteran Ron Torbert will round out the wild card round.
The divisional round features a mix of veteran and younger officials. John Hussey will work the divisional round, but his season won’t end. Up-and-comers Shawn Smith and Shawn Hochuli will work the divisional round, and the dean of NFL white hats, Tony Corrente rounds out the divisional round.
I have Alex Kemp working a conference championship, and Bill Vinovich will continue his run of playoff excellence and works the conference championships again.
For Super Bowl LV, I have John Hussey getting the call. Hussey worked Super Bowl XLV as a line judge and was appointed a referee in 2015. He’s worked his way up the playoff ladder in the last five years. When the NFL needed a referee on a big game during the playoff push in the last month, Hussey has been on the call.
As with the white hats, the entire Super Bowl crew is wide open. Heck, an official might have earned a Super Bowl, but might test positive for covid-19 and miss out. I had a preseason guess which is usually my kiss of death. With a few changes, here are my guesses: referee John Hussey, umpire Bryan Neale, down judge Dana McKenzie, line judge Jeff Seeman, field judge John Jenkins, side judge Jeff Lamberth, and back judge Terrence Miles.
With such a competitive field this year, getting a playoff game is a high honor.
It’s safe to say that this has been a one-of-a-kind season. Amid the crippling effects caused by the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented logistical shakeups across the officiating roster, which make the daunting task of predicting postseason assignments harder than ever before. With the addition of another Wild Card Playoff per conference, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the officiating triumvirate will assign postseason assignments, but, we’ll be the ones to take a crack at it.
I’ve chosen Clete Blakeman, Carl Cheffers, Tony Corrente, and Alex Kemp for the Wild Card Playoffs. Kemp did not receive a postseason assignment last season in his first year eligible at the referee position, but I think he gets the ball rolling this season. Kemp runs a tight ship and is deserving of an assignment this year. Blakeman, Cheffers, and Corrente are all perennial postseason participants (say that five times fast) and will continue their success this year.
In the Divisional Playoff round, John Hussey, Brad Rogers, and Shawn Smith get my vote. Rogers is the only referee of the three from the 2019 white hat class that I have selected for the playoffs; he has great control of the game in only his fourth season in the NFL and is well-deserving of his first playoff assignment as a referee. Hussey was my pick for the Super Bowl last season, and he was assigned to a Conference Championship. He’ll see the postseason again, and I’ll hint that he could potentially be higher.
As we approach the top, I believe we’ll see a Hochuli in the Conference Championships again. No, not Ed, who racked up nine Conference Championships in his career, but Shawn, who I think the NFL is going all in on. Hochuli embodies his dad, definitely, but he has also stood apart and has created a name for himself, if that makes any sense. Along with Hochuli, I predict Bill Vinovich will continue his streak of top tier assignments and see another Conference Championship game.
And, finally, we have reached the Super Bowl. I’ve chosen Ron Torbert for Super Bowl LV in Tampa. Until last season, Torbert made the playoffs in every year he was eligible. In the 2019 postseason, Torbert missed out on an assignment; he wasn’t even chosen as an alternate official. I believe I can safely speak for my colleagues when I say that not assigning Torbert to the playoffs last season was a travesty. He is becoming one of the league’s best referees, and I will not be surprised in the least if he will don the white hat for the game’s biggest stage. Yes, it’s not common to go from a playoff shut-out to the Super Bowl, but it can be done. It will be done.
My runner-up this season is Brad Allen. He missed out on the razor-thin cut this year, but it won’t surprise me at all if he works this January.
|Ben Austro||Mark Schultz||Cam Filipe|
|Super Bowl LV||Tony Corrente||John Hussey||Ron Torbert|
|Conference Championships||Clete Blakeman||Alex Kemp||Shawn Hochuli|
|Bill Vinovich||Bill Vinovich||Bill Vinovich|
|Divisional Playoffs||Tony Corrente||Tony Corrente||John Hussey|
|Shawn Hochuli||Shawn Hochuli||Brad Rogers|
|John Hussey||John Hussey||Shawn Smith|
|Alex Kemp||Shawn Smith||Ron Torbert|
|Wild Card Playoffs||Clete Blakeman||Jerome Boger||Clete Blakeman|
|Carl Cheffers||Alex Kemp||Carl Cheffers|
|Scott Novak||Scott Novak||Tony Corrente|
|Shawn Smith||Brad Rogers||Shawn Hochuli|
|Bill Vinovich||Ron Torbert||Alex Kemp|
|Craig Wrolstad||Bill Vinovich||Bill Vinovich|
When double playoff assignments are predicted, the earlier one is shown in italics.
We will score the predictions as follows: 5 points for a correctly slotted referee, 3 points for selections off by a round, 2 for two rounds, 1 for three rounds, and 1 point each for a Pro Bowl guess who works the playoffs and a playoff guess who works the Pro Bowl (ties broken by the number of correctly slotted referees, then by scores in each round in descending order). A double playoff assignment will only count once, based on the higher of the two assignments.
Last year, Mark was the champion as he edged out Ben on a tiebreaker as they both finished with 19 points, and Cam finished with 18 points. For reference, the highest possible score was 45. Following the playoff expansion and the cancellation of the Pro Bowl, the new highest possible score is 50.