Football Zebras commentary
Our annual tradition — now in its tenth season — 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.
You can see how we did in previous years, and feel free to make your own predictions in the comments section below.
Every year I run the caveat that I ran out of slots and still had, in my opinion, some playoff-worthy officials. Now that there are two extra Wild Card games, this should make the process easier for me, but again I am ruminating over the referees in the vicinity of the cut line.
Tony Corrente, in his 27th season, is the elder statesman of the white hats. Will he be retiring this year? Who knows. But he could conceivably cap it off with his 21st postseason assignment in the Wild Card round. On the other side of the spectrum, I see Brad Rogers getting called to his first postseason in a white hat, joined by John Hussey, Scott Novak, and Ron Torbert. Completing the Wild Card round is Super Bowl LV referee Carl Cheffers.
At the Divisional Playoff round, I see Shawn Hochuli getting edged out slightly for a championship game. The unassuming workhorse Alex Kemp has worked 3 Wild Card games so far, and has continued to elevate his game. Clay Martin continues to impress me with his Dreith-like command of the game (without the unconventional microphone technique); he will return to the Divisional Playoffs, working last year’s days after being cleared by his doctors (sort of) following a brief hospitalization with acute covid symptoms. He is a force to be reckoned with, and will be a familiar face in Januarys (and eventually Februarys) to come.
In the Conference Championship round are the two premiere game managers, Bill Vinovich and Clete Blakeman. Watching these maestri of the white hat conducting their crew like a finely tuned orchestra really illustrates that there is a true art to officiating. Since this is an encore performance of last year’s penultimate playoff contests, I will go further in my prediction in that they will swap conferences this year: Blakeman will work the AFC Championship Game, leaving Vinovich for a possible frigid title game in the NFC.
(I realize it is possible for Vinovich or Blakeman to trigger a provision that an official that finishes #1 at their position in consecutive seasons cannot be passed over for the Super Bowl in both seasons. This was in the collective bargaining agreement in the past, but I am unsure if it is still present in the recently signed agreement.)
During the bye week, I expect Jerome Boger to head to Vegas to cover this year’s Pro Bowl.
For Super Bowl LA — wait, that’s not a Roman numeral — Shawn Smith will lead the crew in the latest game ever on the NFL calendar. In his seventh season, he has only been playoff eligible for four postseasons, yet he has five postseason assignments (including a double-up of a Wild Card and Conference Championship as an umpire in 2017). Smith continues to show his playoff presence is not a fluke. Ordinarily, I would think this is too early for a Super Bowl assignment, but Smith easily allays those concerns.
For the wild card round, I have selected Carl Cheffers, Adrian Hill, Land Clark, Tony Corrente, Clete Blakeman, and Clay Martin. The sixth wild card game gives another referee a chance for an on-field assignment. Five of the six referees have extensive playoff experience. Land Clark will make a well-deserved white hat playoff debut.
For the divisional round, I have selected John Hussey, Ron Torbert, Alex Kemp, and Scott Novak. Again, all of these officials have playoff experience at white hat and at their prior positions. Novak will work his first divisional game as a white hat. Novak has been flying under the radar and, from what I can see, has had a strong and steady season.
I’ve chosen Shawn Smith and Brad Allen for the conference championship games. Smith worked a conference championship as an umpire and was the Super Bowl alternate last year. The league is high on Smith. He will lead the crew in his first championship game. Brad Allen has worked the wild card and divisional playoffs, He bursts through to the championship game this year.
The Super Bowl Crew: John Hussey, Ramon George, Jerod Phillips, Mark Perlman, Aaron Santi, Jonah Monroe, Terrence Miles. This is a complete stab in the dark that I hope isn’t a kiss of death!
And finally, the Pro Bowl. It’s a “kiss your sister” assignment, and it isn’t even in Hawaii anymore! Jerome Boger will handle this exhibition celebration.
Predicting postseason assignments is my second-favorite time of the season, behind actually hearing who was selected by the officiating brass to work the playoff games. However, it gets harder and harder each season to figure out who belongs where. You would think that with the addition of two Wild Card Playoff games, instituted last year, it would be easier to make selections, as now, two more referees can be included in the mix. Nope. This process is as hard as ever, but it sure is fun to be in senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson’s shoes and make our own selections. I’ve come in last place the last two years, so here goes nothing.
For the six Wild Card Playoff games, I’m predicting that Brad Allen, Carl Cheffers, Land Clark, Alex Kemp, Clay Martin, and Brad Rogers will get the call. I think Allen and Kemp may be in good positions to receive a Divisional Playoff this year, but again, there are only so many spots to work with. Land Clark, in his first year of eligibility as a referee, will take the field for his first ever NFL postseason assignment. Carl Cheffers, fresh off the Super Bowl last season, will make the cut but I don’t foresee him in the upper tier this year. Brad Rogers should make a well-deserved return to the playoffs this season, as well.
Clete Blakeman, John Hussey, and Bill Vinovich will officiate in the Divisional Round, by my estimation. Hussey always has control over games and I enjoy watching games that he officiates. Blakeman and Vinovich are coming off Conference Championship assignments, and additionally, Vinovich has worked in the championship rounds or Super Bowl in six of the last seven seasons. So this is big deal to exclude Vinovich from the top of the rankings. I believe he is currently the league’s best referee, but there are some younger officials who, I believe, are working their way up toward the pinnacle.
I have the Shawns slotted for the Conference Championships: Shawn Hochuli and Shawn Smith. I truly feel that both Hochuli and Smith could become the next McAulay and Vinovich. Their presence, control of the game, and strong leadership make them excellent referees and they are very deserving of these high-tier games. Hochuli has made his own name for himself, and Smith was also thought highly of when he received three playoff assignments in his first two years of eligibility when he was hired as an umpire. Across the sports world, we’ll be hearing shouts of “hey, hey, hey!” when these two are assigned to the Conference Championships.
Super Bowl LVI. Who will it be? In 2020, I predicted Ron Torbert for Super Bowl LV. When he was assigned a Divisional Playoff, I thought “it’s finally his year, I predicted it right”. But the call for the Super Bowl never went to him. This season, I’m doubling down. Ron Torbert will be the referee for Super Bowl LVI. Finally. A referee since 2014, Torbert hasn’t sniffed a Super Bowl, and now is the time. After receiving an assignment in every year of eligibility, he was shut out in 2019, which shocked us. But he is back. Believe it.
For the Pro Bowl (which is also back), I can’t imagine anyone other than Tony Corrente getting the assignment. He turned 70 in November and I have a feeling that this may be his swan song. Perhaps not, who knows, but I just have a feeling.
But isn’t that what this is all about, just having a feeling? Enjoy the postseason, everyone.
|Ben Austro||Mark Schultz||Cam Filipe|
|Super Bowl LVI||Shawn Smith||John Hussey||Ron Torbert|
|Conference Championships||Clete Blakeman||Brad Allen||Shawn Hochuli|
|Bill Vinovich||Shawn Smith||Shawn Smith|
|Divisional Playoffs||Shawn Hochuli||John Hussey||Clete Blakeman|
|Alex Kemp||Alex Kemp||John Hussey|
|Clay Martin||Scott Novak||Ron Torbert|
|Shawn Smith||Ron Torbert||Bill Vinovich|
|Wild Card Playoffs||Carl Cheffers||Clete Blakeman||Brad Allen|
|Tony Corrente (1)||Carl Cheffers||Carl Cheffers|
|John Hussey||Land Clark||Land Clark|
|Scott Novak||Tony Corrente (1)||Alex Kemp|
|Brad Rogers||Adrian Hill||Clay Martin|
|Ron Torbert||Clay Martin||Brad Rogers|
|Pro Bowl||Jerome Boger (1)||Jerome Boger (1)||Tony Corrente|
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).
Last year, Ben was the champion with 32 points. Mark finished with 29 points and Cam finished with 23 points. For reference, the highest possible score was 50. Following the removal of Wild Card/Conference Championship duplicate assignments and the return of the Pro Bowl, the new highest possible score is 65.