One of the most difficult yet thankless jobs in all of sports is the NFL referee. Officials are often criticized by fans as being biased, incompetent, or both. Truth be told, most are actually very good at their challenging jobs. But officials occasionally slip up.
So what is the NFL’s system for evaluating and punishing bad officials? Let’s look at whether NFL referees ever get fired for bad calls.
How are referees assigned to NFL games?
Much like NFL players, each referee has a specific team, or crew, they serve. Every ref also has a specific position. Each crew includes seven refs on the field with two replay officials in the booth. NFL officials’ on-field positions are called the following:
- Referee: the leader of the crew
- Umpire: this position looks for holding and blocking on the line of scrimmage along with equipment issues
- Down judge: monitors the chain crew and the line of scrimmage, watches for encroachment and offside penalties
- Line judge: stands on the other side of the down judge, watching the other side of the line of scrimmage
- Field judge: keeps an eye on wide receivers and monitors the sidelines to determine if players are in bounds on questionable catches
- Side judge: backs up the person operating the clock after time expires
- Back judge: monitors players, like offensive linemen or tight ends, at the end of the line of scrimmage
How are NFL referees graded?
While many fans may believe NFL referees are beyond reproach, there actually is a fairly rigorous review process in place for the NFL to evaluate refs. The goal of this practice is to help officials improve and also observe any potential weaknesses.
The NFL assigns people within its office to review and grade each official during the regular season. Each crew chief receives these reports to distribute to his crew members. At the end of the season, the NFL looks at the evaluations of each crew.
The standard penalty for NFL officials who perform below the accepted standards is the inability to advance to the postseason. Much like NFL players, the best officials tend to work the playoffs and Super Bowl.
Do NFL referees ever get fired for bad calls?
The NFL has fired at least one ref for an egregious call. As a fourth-year official, Hugo Cruz was working a 2018 Browns/Chargers game. Chargers offensive lineman Russell Okung jumped offside before the snap. The call was as clear as day, but it went unwhistled. The Chargers hiked the ball and threw a touchdown that should’ve been nullified.
Following the game, fans took to social media to express contempt with the non-call. In this case, the NFL responded to the outcry, firing Cruz. The NFL Referees’ Association responded to defend Cruz, saying:
“The NFL has a history of knee jerk reactions with an eye on public relations … The NFLRA will protect the collectively bargained rights of all officials and will challenge this reckless decision.”
This was a rare move but it essentially put the NFL referees on notice that their jobs were at stake if they failed to perform adequately. While it’s a drastic move, the NFL doesn’t seem afraid to make it.
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