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Buried in last week's NFL officiating announcement was this eye-raising note: Crew assignments "may change during the season because of injury, schedule conflicts, performance issues, etc." (Emphasis is mine.)
The NFL's bye-week schedule means that not every official works every week. Its labor agreement with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) guarantees payment for 15 weeks of the season. Injuries are a real, if mostly unreported, part of the job as well.
NFL officials routinely miss games for those reasons, but the passage in Friday's news release extended beyond those parameters. It suggested something no one can remember happening: swapping out officials during the season based on how well they're calling games.
The league has the capacity to do it, having revived its practice of keeping additional "swing" officials on the payroll to sub in when needed. You could make an argument that benching officials would elevate their accountability to the level of the coaches and players they share the field with. So I dug into the issue a bit this week, focusing on two questions: (1) would the NFL really sideline an official for a series of bad calls?, and (2) should it?
The short answers are highly unlikely and maybe, in that order. The NFL did not clarify its wording publicly, but in speaking to people familiar with the situation, it appears that "performance" in this context relates mostly to the physical ability to do the job. The league will not bench officials for simply making a bad call, I'm told, but has reserved the right to in extreme instances. Mistakes of judgment are inevitable, but an incorrect or missed application of a rule or its enforcement -- especially one that impacted the outcome of a game -- could merit in-season review.
We can't know the odds of such an unprecedented swap, but I can tell you the officials themselves are convinced it won't happen whether or not the possibility exists on paper.
"There is no way they're going to replace anyone because of the way they're grading out over the course of the year," said Jim Quirk, a former NFL referee and current executive director of the NFLRA. "Nobody will be relieved of their duties because of a performance evaluation in the season. To my knowledge that's never happened and it's not going to happen. I can say that categorically."
The primary use for "swing" officials, of course, will be as injury replacements. In recent years, the officiating department has needed healthy officials to double up -- working, say, a Thursday game followed by a Sunday game -- to ensure complete coverage in instances of injury. The NFL got a reminder of that need this month during a physical assessment held for all 2015 officials. On the final run, one official ruptured his Achilles tendon, requiring the NFL to hire a replacement (side judge Jonah Monroe).
A more intriguing use, of course, would be as subtle professional pressure to leverage maximum performance. Coaches get fired during the season. Players are released and demoted on a weekly basis, sometimes for the most minor of mistakes. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino already has intensified its offseason evaluation, part of the reason it has turned over nearly 20 percent of its officials in the past two years. So why not at least consider the possibility of subbing out underperforming individuals during the season when replacements are available?
It wouldn't be a matter of losing a job but rather swapping a higher-profile role for a lower one. On paper, the idea has some merit.
In reality, Quirk said, the practice would do more harm than good. First, he said by telephone this week, the continuity of crews would be diminished.
"You've got seven guys who work together for 19 weeks, including the preseason," he said. "The continuity of the crew is paramount, at least in the NFL anyway. That's the way the guys feel. The league takes a lot of things into consideration when they put those crews together."
Also, Quick said, the NFL's grading system -- developed by former officiating director Art McNally -- wasn't designed to provide an actionable weekly snapshot of performance. It was intended to provide a cumulative body-of-work rating to determine which individuals or crews were awarded postseason games.
I'm not expecting to see the NFL immediately address performance issues among officials this season, despite the presence of potential replacements. It seems a fair discussion, though, if an equitable process can be implemented in the future. Few NFL field personnel are guaranteed a full season. Should officials be any different?