Happy New Year to all NFL officiating fans! Monday marked the start of the 2023 NFL officiating season.
Traditionally, May 15 marks the first day of the NFL officials being in-season following the 3-month “dark period”, which begins after the Super Bowl. The dark period allows the officials to dedicate more time to their full-time occupations. It is not just a courtesy; the dark period is required through a mandate in the NFL-NFLRA collective bargaining agreement.
Following the Divisional Playoff games, contact between the NFL and the officials generally ceases, except for the small number of officials assigned to the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl. The Monday following the Super Bowl is the first day of the no-contact dark period for all game officials.
The traditional symbol of the start of the officiating season, analogous to the Times Square ball drop, is the officials’ receipt of “Memo #1”, which is the first correspondence they will receive from senior vice presidents Walt Anderson and Perry Fewell. In this correspondence, the roster of officials will be formally welcomed back for another season, and an open-book rules test will be assigned. This first memo also briefs officials on the 2023 rule changes. There aren’t major rule changes this year, but there are several tweaks regarding timing, penalty enforcement and definitions, tweaks that the NFL expects the officials to master by Week 1 of the regular season.
2 additional late departures
Football Zebras has learned that field judge Mike Weatherford and line judge Mike Dolce are apparently no longer in the NFL, bringing the offseason retirement/departure number to 12 — the most since the 2013 offseason when 14 officials left the league and only the second time in NFL history where departures were in double digits in consecutive seasons (10 and 13 officials in 2002-03; last season there were 10 departures).
The NFL never informs the public why an official has left the league. Sometimes an offseason physical indicates an issue requiring retirement. Sometimes the official looks in the mirror and understands the fire is out and it is time to retire. Other times work/life balance or new job responsibilities require retirement or the official becomes tired of the NFL officiating fast lane. There are also times that the retirement comes at the behest of the league, usually with a severance payment attached to it.
These latest departures have been hinted at by sources over two months. It is only being reported now because they were difficult to confirm, apparently because both Weatherford and Dolce were not willing to leave and were appealing to the league, according to those same sources. It is likely that the league is moving forward without both of them, however two officials successfully appealed their dismissals in 2020, so a return is possible for either or both.
If the departure holds, Weatherford retires after a 21-season career. He worked as both a field judge and as a side judge. He wore number 116 his entire career. He worked as a swing official last season.
His last on-field assignment was in the 2020 wild card round. In his career, Weatherford worked a total of 11 playoff games: nine wild card games, one divisional game and Super Bowl XLV. He also worked two Pro Bowls and was a playoff alternate four times.
Weatherford, from the Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma, was one of two Native Americans on the officiating staff. He was the only Native American to work a Super Bowl until Jerod Phillips was assigned to Super Bowl LVII last February.
Weatherford was featured in Peter King’s “Game 150: A Week with an NFL Officiating Crew” for the Sports Illustrated MMQB. King was allowed to shadow the crew of Gene Steratore for a week, and detailed the process of reviewing the previous week’s game through the completion of the next game.
Off the field, Weatherford is an executive in the oil and gas business.
Dolce’s apparent departure comes after only three seasons. He most recently worked on Shawn Smith’s crew. In 2022 he was assigned to his first wild card game — Chargers at Jaguars. The record-setting comeback went well and he didn’t make any controversial calls. In 2021, he was a playoff alternate.
Dolce’s and Walt Coleman IV’s retirement are the two most curious of the season. Both officials were assigned a playoff game so performance was not an issue. Officiating sources are unsure of the dynamics of the situation, and Dolce did not respond to our request for comment.
This year, the NFL hired 12 new officials, which naturally will cause many changes to officiating crews this season.
The Hall of Fame Game will be here before we know it!