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7 officiating observations from the 2021 season

7 officiating things that jumped out at us during 2021.



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Commentary by Mark Schultz

We made it through another season, and here are the officiating related things I noticed during the 18-week regular season.

Expedited replay is a success

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I was skeptical at first, but once the bugs got worked out, the “replay assistance rule” turned into a valuable officiating tool this year.

In 2020 the replay official at the stadium could step in and make clock adjustments. This season, the replay official’s ability to fix plays was greatly expanded.

In short, the NFL is allowing the replay official to take a quick look at a play, and if it can be quickly corrected, the official can radio the field officials to fix the call. The onus is not immediately on the head coach to determine if the play is worth a challenge.

It took a few weeks to get used to the officials standing there listening to the radio, but once I and other fans got used to the pacing, it turned out to be a great addition to helping get the call right.

Short is not sweet

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This year, we noticed NFL referees making short, almost terse announcements on the microphone. The use of the microphone has evolved over the years first from short five word announcements, to longer explanations in the era of replay officials.

This season, we are back to short announcements. If a call is reversed, we don’t get a complete explanation of why it was reversed. There are other times where a referee needs to explain something in 25 – 50 words.

We need more from the referee.

As the year continued, I noticed a few referees explaining things more (especially on replay reversals), but fans and broadcasters need detailed rulings.

A second female official is hired

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Six years after Sarah Thomas became the first official female official, the NFL hired Maia Chaka into the NFL. While most of us cannot rattle off the crew and mission specifics of Apollo 12 (the second mission to the moon), Chaka’s hiring is significant.

By all appearances, she had a good season — and even received a Call of the Week shout out.

Too many obituaries this year

This season, we saw some titans of NFL officiating in the 1970s – 1990s pass away. 2021 started out difficult as former umpires Ron Botchan and Bob Boylston passed away within days of each other in January.

Then, legendary referee Ben Dreith passed away. And during the season, former umpire and active replay official Carl Madsen died while driving home after working a game in the replay booth.

A total of eight officials died in 2021. While time runs out for everyone, we hope for health and happiness for everyone in the officiating world in 2022.

A disappointing turn for one of the best referees ever

For many years, NFL referee (and former Big East/American Athletic Conference football officiating supervisor) Terry McAulay was regarded as one of the best officials in the country.

It was (and still is) a coup that NBC hired him off of the field to provide officiating commentary on Sunday Night Football.

Unfortunately, he is using his reputation and platform to trash officials for doing things he personally doesn’t like.

We must admit that there have been some major errors this season such as reviewing plays that are not reviewable and timing errors. He has also properly said that a certain flag was a phantom flag or something wasn’t called that was a big miss. Officials aren’t above criticism especially when they miss big calls like those I described. It is proper for McAulay — and John Parry, Gene Steratore, Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira — to point those out.

But this year, McAulay is being critical of officiating that goes against his personal preference or philosophy. Examples are a slow penalty enforcement, an unnecessary crew conference or a referee’s mic style. These criticisms are what an officiating supervisor talks about at a conference clinic. Yet, McAulay criticizes these points with the same vehemence as he criticizes a major officiating error.

So, many fans think an official who takes 10 extra seconds to enforce a penalty is a terrible official, when McAulay simply thinks the official needs to move faster.

And, what is really off putting about these criticisms is that McAulay does it with almost gleeful snark.

What broke it for me was during this season’s Fiesta Bowl, officiated by the Big 10 and referee Jerry McGinn. McGinn (who ironically worked for McAulay as a Big East white hat), was using the “walk and talk” announcement. This is where there is no foul, but McGinn would open his mic and say something like, “there is no intentional grounding, the quarterback was outside the tackles and the pass crossed the line of scrimmage.” This is a mechanic that NCAA supervisors like and encourage their referees to use.

Personally, McAulay doesn’t like it.

It is one thing to say, “I’d prefer a ‘less is more’ approach from referees,” but McAulay takes it too far. Fans like him criticizing an official for failing to properly enforce a rule. But ripping an official doing something McAulay personally doesn’t like does not help educate the public on the nuances of officiating.

McAulay is ruffling officials’ feathers at both the college and pro ranks. They resent his snark because they know he knows how hard it is to officiate a football game. I personally think his snark isn’t helping the officiating world.

But, that’s the way McAulay has always rolled.

Incidentally, McAulay resigned from the NFL Referees Association in 2015 when union boss, Jim Quirk, Sr., publicly criticized McAulay’s crew for what he thought was a poorly officiated game.

Movember becoming a tradition

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The earth almost shifted off of its axis in 2020, when the NFL allowed its officials to not shave during the month of November. No Shave November, or Movember raises funds and brings awareness to men’s health issues.

The NFL and NCAA does not allow its officials to grow beards during the season. That changed for one month beginning in 2020.

Contrary to chalking it up to a “wacky pandemic season,” the NFL brought Movember back for its officials this year. And many officials took advantage of it.

Looks like this will become an annual event.

Another pandemic and another successful season

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Once again, the officials made it through the season safely as the covid-19 pandemic continues on.

Officials had to get vaccinated as a condition of employment, and had to subject themselves to several tests for the virus.

This season they were free to officiate without masks (although some continued to wear them), and they were able to use traditional whistles.

While some undoubtedly had to isolate this season due to a positive test or contact tracing, the officials all pulled from the same side of the rope and were able to put together another great season.

Congratulations to all NFL (and NCAA officials too) for another good season, and best wishes to the officials who have one more assignment – or maybe two!

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?"