The 2021 NFL season has come to an always abrupt halt. The confetti is swept off the Sofi Stadium floor and we now prepare for the 2022 season. But, before the NFL kicks off its 103rd season with the Hall of Fame Game in August, the officiating office has some essential housekeeping items complete.
This year we saw 7 officials call their last game, including 27-year veteran Tony Corrente, the last at the referee position that director of officiating Jerry Seeman promoted during his term from 1990 to 2000. The photo above was taken at the Pro Bowl several years ago, with retiring officials leaving their shoes to fill at midfield.
We wait for a new white hat (or two?!)
Corrente’s retirement means we will have another new referee. The new referee almost always is a current NFL official working at another position. While Corrente is the only announced opening, there is an outside chance there could be a late retirement, buyout, or position shuffle that will create a second opening.
As of today, there are two officials who will most likely be the next referees, both currently side judges: Jonah Monroe and Don Willard. Both auditioned for referee during the 2019 season
Monroe just completed his seventh NFL season as a side judge, and worked his first conference championship game. Monroe officiated his collegiate ball in the American Athletic Conference, mostly as a deep wing. He worked a few non-conference games as a referee.
A few years ago, I mentioned his name as “a possibility” for a future referee position. Apparently, the NFL was also high on Monroe and he now is on the cusp of becoming a referee. Monroe has spent most of his career as a side judge on Jerome Boger’s crew.
Willard just complete his fourth season and served as a side judge on Tony Corrente’s crew. This season, he worked the Titans-Bengals divisional playoff game. Willard cut his teeth in the Big Ten, working as a side judge and referee.
Since Willard worked on Tony Corrente’s crew, it would seem natural for Willard to simply slide into the offensive backfield, put a white hat on and keep the crew intact. But, Monroe has a year or two more in seniority. What will the NFL do? Will the front office pick just one referee and have the runner-up wait for another retirement? Will they promote both to referee and have a current referee be a swing white hat? Will we have another white hat retire between now and May? Will the NFL move a current referee to a black hat position? We’ll have to wait and see.
Other white-hat candidates
There are two more current NFL officials who could be in the pipeline to become a referee: Alan Eck (pictured above) and Tra Blake.
Alan Eck was a Big 12 referee, who entered the NFL as a field judge and in his second year in the league moved to umpire. Eck is a six-year veteran, with one playoff assignment — this year’s divisional playoff game in Kansas City. He has never auditioned for referee, so it is difficult to peg his referee prospects. But, he has extensive experience at the referee position and we keep him in the mix.
Tra Blake comes to the NFL from the Big 12. He worked referee in college and just completed his rookie NFL season as umpire, and two seasons in the abortive spring leagues, the Alliance of American Football (below) and the XFL.
Since the AFL-NFL merger, only Jerry Markbreit and Tom White were promoted to referee in their second season, so Blake leapfrogging Monroe, Willard and Eck is unlikely. But, look for him to get firmly into the mix in the coming years.
Looking beyond the immediate white hat vacancies, the NFL has designated these college officials in their development rosters for white-hat training or has placed them in a college all-star game roster as a referee:
- Bryan Banks (Big Ten)
- James Carter (SEC)
- Brandon Cruse (Big 12)
- Timothy Hedgepeth (ACC)
- Duane Heydt (ACC, 2022 National Championship referee)
- Matthew Loeffler (ACC)
- Jeff Maconaghy (ACC)
- Adam Savoie (American Athletic)
Look for the NFL to hire more officials with collegiate experience this spring, as the next generation of officials approaches retirement age. Since 2014, all newly hired officials have participated at least one preseason in the NFL’s Officiating Development Program. There are expected to be at least 7 hires this offseason to replace the outgoing officials. The immediate vacancies to fill are a down judge, a line judge, and 5 deep wing officials (4 retirees plus one for the next white hat who will likely be a side judge). Of note, there are no umpires or back judges retiring. Additionally, there are two replay officials that will need to be replaced, likely from one of the current replay assistants.
There is also growing speculation that the league intends to hire at least one woman on-field official, adding to the two already on-field and the four on the replay staff. But there will be a few officials that will get a call in March or early April with a life-changing greeting:
“Welcome to the NFL.”
Top photo: Ben Liebenberg/NFL. Ben Austro contributed to this report.