Why NFL officials don’t like being assigned to wild-card games

Former NFL referee Mike Pereira and now a rules analyst for FOX Sports, will write a weekly column for The Sacramento Bee throughout the NFL postseason.
Former NFL referee Mike Pereira and now a rules analyst for FOX Sports, will write a weekly column for The Sacramento Bee throughout the NFL postseason.

Sacramento’s Mike Pereira, a former NFL referee and head of NFL referees, is a rules analyst for Fox Sports. He is writing a weekly column for The Sacramento Bee throughout the postseason.

As the lyrics go in one of Willie Nelson’s hit songs, “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.”

Well, I have been on the road for 19 consecutive weekends, and I can’t say that I can’t wait to get on the road again. But before leaving for the 20th consecutive weekend, I am going to do something different. I’m going to take you with me.

Not to Los Angeles, home to Fox Sports studios, where I have spent 18 of those 19 weekends. We are going to Wisconsin for Sunday’s playoff game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.

The “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, where the predicted temperature during the game is 19 degrees. The Lambeau turf won’t actually be frozen because of heaters installed beneath the field in 1967. First it was with electric coils and now with a series of underground pipes filled with a solution that includes antifreeze.

So you know a little about the turf, the Giants and the Packers. What you don’t know is who the officials will be and the criteria used to assign them to this game and the rest of the playoffs.

Assignments are merit-based. Each NFL official is evaluated every play of every game. Most of the evaluation is based on the calls they make or don’t make. There are also subjective elements such as communication, decisiveness, game management, rules knowledge and positioning.

After the season-long evaluation, their score places them in one of three tiers. If an official finishes in the top tier, he or she is eligible to work the Super Bowl or one of the conference championship games. Tier II officials are eligible to work wild-card or divisional playoff games. Tier III officials are left home and likely put on probation. Consecutive years in Tier III probably means weekends at home next fall and beyond. We can conclude the officials for this weekend’s games will come from Tier II.

It all sounds reasonable, right? Not to me.

This system of evaluation is based on individual performance and not the performance of the crew. I believe in the crew concept. Why put individuals together who likely have not worked together during the season or maybe ever? Why not advance the crews that performed the best over the season while becoming familiar with each official’s strengths and weaknesses? After all, the Giants and Packers advanced to the playoffs as a team.

Instead, seven officials will work together, in most cases, for the first time this season. This could lead to breakdowns in communication and decisiveness. The trust and familiarity they worked to establish over 19 weeks as a crew, including preseason games, are gone.

Just ask Detroit Lions fans. Remember the 2014 playoffs, when pass interference was called against the Dallas Cowboys, then rescinded without a worthy explanation? What a mess.

If you are asking why I didn’t do this when I was in charge, well, I did. In three consecutive seasons, 2003 to 2005, I advanced crews together and put the top-performing crew in the Super Bowl. Officials hated it, except for field judge Tom Sifferman, who ended up working all three of those Super Bowls. Tom may not have been the highest-rated field judge each season, but he was part of the best team.

After three seasons, the officials’ union complained and the league backed the union. More power to the individual. Forget about the team.

The officials selected to work in Green Bay on Sunday will be notified Tuesday. Most will not be thrilled to get the call. The main reason is that working a wild-card game eliminates them from working the Super Bowl. Those officials will come from a group of 28 who work the divisional playoff games next week.

The other reason officials won’t like the trip to Wisconsin this weekend? Take a guess. To keep it in musical terms, Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark were the first duet to sing, “Baby, it’s cold outside.”

At least the bottoms of their feet will be warm.

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