Football Zebras commentary
Our annual tradition — now in its eleventh season — is to predict which referees are assigned to the postseason. 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.
For many seasons, I enter this time of year watching the officials riding a wave into the postseason. I don’t know why this season has felt different than others, but there is a large sense of disappointment. I mean, some great officials have had some seasons that were off, and so maybe they slip to a playoff alternate. But we cannot put forth a slate of just alternates.
This year, I have Ron Torbert, Clete Blakeman, and Carl Cheffers in the Wild Card round, when I have placed them higher previously, with Torbert coming off a stellar Super Bowl season last year. Brad Allen and Craig Wrolstad have not consistently been on the playoff field, but lately have been working their way back. Brad Rogers has improved during the season, despite a significant rules misapplication early on, which might be far enough in the rearview mirror.
In the Divisional Playoffs, I have three officials, plus the Super Bowl official. (Who? You will have to wait.) One of those is Alex Kemp, who I felt has had a steady run but has been assigned lower than I felt he performed. Clay Martin just has the gravitas of a Ben Dreith (without the loquacity) that shows him in command. I’ve seen Shawn Smith grow into the referee position quite well. Although I made my selections prior to Week 17, his handling of the grave situation around Damar Hamlin was exceptional. He is the calm voice in that crisis, talking with the coaches through the situation. Even as the cameras found both coaches in the tunnel during the suspension of play, Smith was right there beside them, attentively listening as well (a very important trait).
Moving to the top tier and the Conference Championships: Shawn Hochuli has anchored himself as a referee in his own right, and we rarely mention his relation to his father (but I do mention him here to make a point). Scott Novak has been a bright beacon in the fog of 2022, and has emerged as a calm and controlled game manager.
Usually, I have Bill Vinovich in the conference championship slot, but this year I do not. He has consistently shown himself to not only be in the top tier, but be the top tier: 7 of the last 8 postseasons had Vinovich in a conference championship or a Super Bowl. His last Super Bowl was 3 years ago, and it is an unusually quick, but well earned, return to the big game.
This is a very hard year to predict. Especially in the last few years as the NFL seems to pull a surprise with an official assigned higher that we predicted — or not assigned to the field at all.
For the wild card round, I have Brad Rogers and Land Clark getting their first playoff assignments at the white hat. Many years the defending Super Bowl referee gets no assignment. Ron Torbert had a good year, so I still have him in the wild card round. Craig Wrolstad and Clay Martin are back in the post-season this year, and I predict Jerome Boger returns to the playoff for the second straight year.
In the divisional round I predict John Hussey, Alex Kemp, Shawn Hochuli and Bill Vinovich. All four have had strong seasons and deserve a divisional round. Vinovich has been on a Jerry Markbreit-like run of Championship Game assignments (or Super Bowl assignments). The Super Bowl referee works the divisional round. I don’t think Vinovich will work the Super Bowl, but the NFL needs a Super Bowl-caliber referee available, just in case the referee they want in the Super Bowl, gets sideways in his divisional game. Vinovich could very easily be in the Championship round again, but you never know.
I have two new officials working the Championship Games this year. Shawn Smith and Brad Allen both have had exceptional seasons and I think they will work the semi-final round.
I have predicted John Hussey for the Super Bowl for several seasons, and I will ride with number 35 again into final game of the NFL season.
There are several good officials I left out of the playoffs this year. There are so many good referees. It is a shame that some will not work a playoff game.
This task seems to get harder and harder every year. You would think that the addition of two Wild Card games would make it easier to make sure more officials are included, but in fact, this truly makes it more difficult. Not to say there are officials not deserving, but the question of who ascends and descends is much harder to decrypt. I won by a lot last year though, and this will be the last time I brag about it. Here comes the 2022 postseason.
For the Wild Card Playoff games, I’m choosing Carl Cheffers, John Hussey, Clay Martin, Brad Rogers, Ron Torbert, and Craig Wrolstad. It’s crunch time for Brad Rogers, who has not yet been assigned an on-field playoff game since his promotion to referee, but I think the time is now. Carl Cheffers, John Hussey, and Ron Torbert are all upper-tier caliber officials, but I feel they’ll hover in the earlier rounds this season. Hussey and Torbert are probably my two favorite white hats currently (no one will replace Pete Morelli, but I digress), and even still, I’m slotting them in the first round.
In the Divisional Playoffs, I believe Brad Allen, Clete Blakeman, and Alex Kemp will be selected. These three referees are solid, they get the job done, and I’m always sure that any game they work will be handled above average. Kemp has never ascended above the Wild Card Playoff round, but I think this is the year. Similarly, Allen has only made it to the Divisional round once, but I think he returns for the first time since 2017. And as for Blakeman, he very well could grade out higher. I see that, but these choices just seem right.
The Conference Championships will be officiated by Shawn Smith and Bill Vinovich. I predicted that Smith would get a Conference Championship last season, and he received a Wild Card. He showed great command of the game, especially in handling the unprecedented events of the cancelled Bills-Bengals game, and I believe his leadership and game management will earn him a game at this level. On the other hand, I also predicted that Vinovich’s 4-year streak of top-tier (Conference Championship or Super Bowl) assignments — and 7 in the previous 8 years — would come to an end. I won’t be making that mistake again. Enough said.
I’ve selected what I think is a dark horse candidate for Super Bowl LVII. Moments before the 3 of us separately finalized our lists and presented them to each other, I made a late swap and locked in this choice for this year’s top white hat. I chose Shawn Hochuli. I’ve been very impressed with his work recently, and I think the league has noticed that, as well. He has worked a Divisional Playoff in every year eligible since his promotion to referee, and I think this is the year he elevates. Not just one round, but all the way to the top.
Very strong honorable mention to Scott Novak. Even with increased games to select more officials, it’s still tough to leave some out. It’s been a wild season, let’s finish it off with a bang.
|Ben Austro||Mark Schultz||Cam Filipe|
|Super Bowl LVII||Bill Vinovich||John Hussey||Shawn Hochuli|
|Conference Championships||Shawn Hochuli||Brad Allen||Shawn Smith|
|Scott Novak||Shawn Smith||Bill Vinovich|
|Divisional Playoffs||Alex Kemp||Shawn Hochuli||Brad Allen|
|Clay Martin||John Hussey||Clete Blakeman|
|Shawn Smith||Alex Kemp||Shawn Hochuli|
|Bill Vinovich||Bill Vinovich||Alex Kemp|
|Wild Card Playoffs||Brad Allen||Jerome Boger||Carl Cheffers|
|Clete Blakeman||Clay Martin||John Hussey|
|Carl Cheffers||Scott Novak||Clay Martin|
|Brad Rogers||Brad Rogers||Brad Rogers|
|Ron Torbert||Ron Torbert||Ron Torbert|
|Craig Wrolstad||Craig Wrolstad||Craig Wrolstad|
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, and 1 for three rounds (ties broken by the number of correctly slotted referees, then by scores in each round in descending order).
Last year, Cam was the champion with 45 points. Ben finished with 28 points and Mark finished with 23 points. For reference, the highest possible score was 65. Following the removal of the traditional Pro Bowl, the new highest possible score is 60.