The 2020 season is over. The 2021 Hall of Fame Game is six months away (hopefully!), but there is still much to do for the NFL officiating department as they get ready for the 102nd NFL season.
Who will retire?
We usually get a few retirement announcements between Week 17 and the Super Bowl. But, there were no gold watch announcements this postseason. Many officials are taking stock in their age, abilities and physical condition and deciding now whether or not to return.
Other times the retirement comes a few months from now. The NFL, wanting to bring in younger officials might offer a severance package to an official, who will take it. It is a dignified retirement, but the NFL gave the official a little (or big) nudge. I call it a “voluntold” retirement. This also has given rise to somewhat of a holdout situation, where officials might be considering retirement, but are waiting instead for a severance offer to come in the offseason.
The NFL may take a look at underperforming officials and have to have the tough conversation with the official that they are no longer a NFL official.
An anomaly this season is 5 veteran on-field officials are slated to return in 2021 after opting out of this season due to the pandemic. The presumption is that all will return, although it is possible to see someone reassess their situation after riding the sofa on Sundays and not return. Because they hired new officials to fill the gaps this year, there will be a few extra officials (2 line judges, 2 side judges, and a back judge were all “covid hires” this year) on the staff. While there frequently are a few extra officials on the staff each year (“swing” officials that move to a different crew each week), they are already up to 7 when including last year’s swing officials with the covid hires. Seven is a bit too much for a swing staff.
The NFL never announces why an official leaves the league. Sometimes officials grant an interview with the media, other times — possibly a condition of their severance agreement — they decline.
More women officials?
The NFL not only broke the gender barrier in the Super Bowl, but Sarah Thomas proved that she belonged. In a game where officiating was called into question, the only mention of Thomas was her presence in the game and not any of her calls. Fair or not, she had to have a perfect game not only for herself, but for other women to follow.
But, she is the only woman on the on-field staff. There are two women working in the replay booths, plus three women comprise the entire staff of assistants at the centralized replay hub.
Unfortunately, based on that overstaffing issue brought on by the covid hires, we have to be looking at about 5 departures before any discussion begins on bringing in any new officials.
LaShell Nelson, a Big Ten deep wing, seems to be the next woman to be called up, as the NFL placed her on the officiating staff of the Senior Bowl (along with two other women), which it uses to evaluate potential candidates. She also worked some CFL games in 2019 under a program run by both leagues. This indicates the league is serious about her candidacy, as it was the first time the NFL sent a development official to the Great White North, as all others were already on the NFL staff.
Any new white hats?
In the past eight years, we have seen eight referees retire. The initial reviews of the eight new referees is encouraging.
We have heard no word on whether or not any referees are retiring this offseason.
The NFL has an extensive training program for potential referees. Last year, the NFL didn’t have a preseason, a time that potential future referees work a preseason game as an audition. We will see how Walt Anderson, senior vice president of officiating training and development, proceeds in screening new referees.
If any referees retire, there are two candidates who have auditioned for the position and are ready to go. Both Jonah Monroe and Don Willard have auditioned for referee and both will make good NFL referees, if and when the time comes.
Any new rules?
The last few years featured the NFL competition committee making big rule changes to pass interference reviews, definition of a catch and roughing the passer points of emphasis.
We are going to resubmit a rules proposal to the Competition Committee this year for a double-pass loophole that allows a quarterback to catch his own pass and throw a second time. While it is a foul, if accepted, it requires repeating the down, which actually incentivizes the second pass. We saw this in Week 11 when Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady had a pass batted back to him and then threw it again for an 8-yard pass. The Rams declined the penalty because 4th & 2 was far more advantageous than 3rd & 15, however the Rams should not have to make that choice. Since it could not be legally completed, shouldn’t this carry a loss of down just as if it is intentionally grounded?
While there is always a cry to change the much ballyhooed “worst rule in football,” don’t expect that to change. Media-driven rules changes rarely end up working.
Can we return to normal? What is the new normal?
Numerous staffing accommodations were made this season to reduce the gameday assistant staff, or GDAs. The plan was to reduce the number of people in the stadium, particularly on the sideline, and redistribute the roles. The chain crews also were also forced to work shorthanded and double-up on certain duties. Officials actually had more room to officiate with the lack of photographers clustered around the rim of the sidelines and end lines. Will we see more personnel on the sidelines in 2021?
Everything other than the actual game was handled remotely. The two offseason clinics were remote. Officials held pregame meetings by remote, each in their hotel rooms. When they arrived on site, they again were remote with coaches, security, and the TV network in their pregame rituals. Walt Anderson, the new senior vice president in the officiating department, has run most everything from his home office. It’s possible that some of these protocols will go away, but will some of them continue?
Air travel was significantly curtailed, and 6-, 7-, 8-hour car trips were expected as they regionalized the crews. Will travel restrictions be lifted? Will crews be assigned to games around the country, rather than working the same teams multiple times? Will games return to London in 2021?
Regarding the international games, a source tells Football Zebras that local officials first have to make a commitment to the NFL by March 15. If the league gets that commitment, then NFL will then have to make a final decision by early July if they are moving ahead with the London games.
Everyone wanting to be the optimistic armchair epidemiologist has us mostly returning to some sort of normal by summer. This still overlaps a working period for officials in the offseason which begins May 15. A miniclinic is held in late May, which typically consists of conditioning drills for evaluation. That is probably still up in the air, and likely will again be handled remotely, skipping the drills for more rules and mechanics discussion. The main clinic is typically held in July in the Dallas area over three days, also concluding in conditioning drills. This is also in jeopardy. Another unknown is training camp visits, which allow additional grass time, plus a chance to work in some development officials and address rules questions from players and coaches.
The NFL also may decide to implement a 17-game regular season in 2021, which will reduce the preseason to 2 weeks plus the Hall of Fame Game. This shortens the officiating window to get in a few games to knock the rust off. It also curtails the opportunities for the officiating department to have development officials work preseason games, to work on mechanics for a potential 8th official position or press-box advisor, to test out potential new rules, and to give auditions for future promotions to the referee position.
The NFL is the only one of the four major leagues to have an offseason longer than its season, under normal circumstances. That said, there are plenty of things to keep an eye on during the downtime.
Images: Chad Young for Football Zebras, ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo; Carolina Panthers photo; New England Patriots photo.