Using The Post Season to Approximate Season Grades
Now that all post-season officiating assignments are out, we have informal post-season data to evaluate the NFL officials. Every post-season game has both officials and alternates assigned for the game. Alternate assignments are substantially worse than game assignments, so receiving only an alternate assignment is a bad sign for an official. This can be done by coincidence – an official graded good enough for a playoff assignment but there were not enough games to go around. By norm, all Super Bowl officials work another playoff game (almost always a divisional contest), and no other official works multiple games (there was one exception this year). Also no official should ever receive more than two total playoff assignments including being an alternate. First year officials are ineligible for the playoffs by rule. As a result of all of these factors, there is space for 12 of 17 officials at each position to work a game on the field (and slightly fewer alternate slots because fewer alternates are assigned). Functionally this results in 5 tiers of officials:
- The 7 working the Super Bowl
- The 14 Working the Conference Championship games
- The other 63 working the playoffs
- The 16 only assigned as playoff alternates
- The 7 not assigned any playoff games even as alternates.
It is very hard to use post-season work to distinguish between the 63 officials in category three, and I do not try to. Also I believe there is substantial evidence that the NFL does not distinguish much in this group for playoff assignments, and mostly assigns crews where it is convenient to put their referee.
Crews Denver Saw Multiple Times
There are 17 crews of officials, so each football team will normally see most but not all of the officials in a season. The Denver Broncos saw 4 officiating crews multiple times during the season. These were the crews led by referees: Bill Vinovich, John Hussey, Shawn Hochuli, and Carl Cheffers. Using the playoffs as our success metrics, these were four of the best officiating crews. Hochuli, Vinovich and Hussey each had two different officials work multiple post-season games, and had no eligible officials blanked from the playoffs. Hochuli’s back judge Rich Martinez was the only official from those three crews to not have a playoff game, and he was at least an alternate for a wildcard game.
We saw Hochuli and crew for the week 6 game against the Chiefs and the week 18 game against the Raiders. In my reviews of those games, I felt that Hochuli was very weak announcing, but otherwise had a solid crew and put together good games. In particular I called out the short wings in week 18 as having spectacular spots. Down Judge Patrick Holt will be working his first Super Bowl next week, and Line Judge Tim Podraza will be a Super Bowl alternate as reward for ranking approximately 4th at his position. Both seemed clearly well-earned honors to me. Far more surprising was the post-season accolades for umpire Terry Killens, who will be working the Super Bowl, and for Hochuli himself who was both a divisional referee and a backup for the conference championship weekend (slotting him roughly 4th or 5th at his position). Its possible that my review style has missed value Killens offers, but Hochuli exhibited sloppy announcing through both Denver games that made me uncomfortable with his relative ranking.
John Hussey and his crew officiated the Week 5 Jets game and the Week 15 Lions game. In both games I was profoundly impressed by the deep three officials, and it was pretty gratifying to see that two of these received high honors with Anthony Flemming receiving the rare double playoff assignment and Allen Baynes will be working his first Super Bowl next week. I had savage things to say about the short wings, but they both received above average playoff assignments. Frankly this surprised me, as I felt their performance in Broncos games merited receiving no playoff assignments. Hussey himself was inconsistent, but by no means awful.
We saw Carl Cheffers and his crew twice: in Week 16 against New England and in Week 4 against the Bears. I consider Cheffers to be the best crew leader in the NFL, and felt both of his games were excellent all around. I preferred the deep officials of his crew to the short wings, but was wildly complimentary of his crew during the season. Field Judge Nate Jones was both assigned a conference championship and as an alternate for the Super Bowl, ranking him approximately third at his position. Also, while Eugene Hall and Cheffers himself had relatively down post-season assignments, both also worked the Super Bowl last year. With every eligible member of the Cheffers crew receiving a post-season on-field assignment, I would say that my judgment held up well.
The Officiating Crews Denver Did Not Face
Denver did not see 4 officiating crews during the season. These were the crews led by Tra Blake, Land Clark, Alan Eck, and Scott Novak. These four crews included 4 of the 7 eligible officials who did not land either a playoff game or a playoff alternative spot. There were five referees who did not have a playoff game (including Eck, who was not eligible), and these four referees plus Brad Allen make up that list. The Brad Allen crews total of 2 on field assignments was the lowest in the league, and it is clear he had the least distinguished crew in the 2023 season. I was very complimentary of his work during the Broncos game against the Chiefs in week 8, and felt that his crew exhibited consistency and professionalism throughout the contest. Either the NFL disagreed with his relatively infrequent penalties (fourth lowest in the NFL), or they reviewed Allens other contests in substantially different light than their work in Denver. Most notable here would be the Dallas Detroit game that had significant controversy surrounding the officiating. But regardless of the cause, my rating of the Allen crew was in sharp contrast with their post-season lack of assignments.
Either by coincidence or for some other reason, the Broncos were assigned basically the best slate of officiating crews a team could reasonably have in a season in 2023. They missed the crews that seem to have had poor years, and had extra exposure to the crews that performed at peak levels. Its easy to remember the bad games from some of our officials, but if you think about the times that bad officiating made big news this last year, almost none of that was for Broncos games. A lot of this is because Denver enjoyed better than average officiating throughout the year.
I also feel more than a bit vindicated that I singled out a significant number of the Super Bowl officials. I am not grading officials the way the NFL does, and I have much more confidence in my grades of the wing officials than of other positions so its been satisfying that the NFL echo's my wing judgements.