Why the NFL will swap officials regularly in 2016

IRVING, Texas -- Answer me this: Is it unusual for an NFL coach to tweak his starting lineup based on matchups and/or his game plan in a given week?

Of course not.

Soon, the same sentiment will apply to the league's 124 officials.

Among the topics discussed at the recent NFL officiating clinic was a plan to swap officials from their crews based on a given week's lineup of games. The approach was visible on two occasions last season as the league battled a series of high-profile mistakes, and it will become a regular, if not frequent, part of officiating life in 2016.

"We're just trying to get the best seven officials on the field for every game," vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said, using words that sound familiar to anyone who has heard an NFL coach speak.

Blandino said he will make changes based on "matchups and things that we see." Sources gathered at the clinic said they expected the league to minimize the presence of inexperienced officials in high-profile games. The policy also would allow Blandino to swap out officials who make a public mistake, ensuring that they don't work a nationally televised game the ensuing week, as he did last season after back judge Greg Wilson missed an illegal bat penalty in Week 4.

Finally, Blandino acknowledged that crew chemistry could play a factor. He might decide, for example, that a referee and umpire -- who work together closely -- should be split up. The same goes for the head linesman and side judge, who work the same sideline.

In an interview, Blandino emphasized he would not equate a swap with a demotion and indicated the league is sensitive to suggestions that the policy reveals an untold hierarchy among games.

"Every game is important, and every game means the same to the two teams that are playing," Blandino said. "This will just give us the ability to shuffle people around and try to put them in the best position to be successful."

The tactic moves away from the league's tradition of using permanent crew assignments, which has valued continuity above all else, but stops short of an idea that league executives have been floating for more than a year: dropping the crew concept altogether. (NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suggested last fall that such a change could eliminate significant discrepancies in style and penalty calls among crews.) Blandino termed the 2016 approach "a balance between consistency and continuity among all 17 crews."

Officials that I spoke with last week made clear they favor the permanent crew structure, but acknowledged that at least a limited rotation is inevitable. And in a preview of that mindset, some referees learned this spring that their 2015 crews had changed dramatically.

Blandino, for example, entirely broke up referee Pete Morelli's crew, which last season committed a number of public gaffes and was reassigned from a Week 13 Sunday night game. (Morelli's side judge, Rob Vernatchi, was suspended for one game because he didn't notice that 18 seconds ran off a game clock following a kickoff. Suspensions are expected to remain a rare occurrence, to be used only in cases of significant administrative mistakes.)

Referee Walt Coleman, meanwhile, got back only one of his six 2015 officials. Coleman said he won't mind occasional, targeted changes but said that weekly disruption would limit the effectiveness of his crew's training routine.

"The problem you get into is when you're trying to evaluate the previous week's game, which we all do every week," he said. "The great part of working with the same people each week is that you can talk about what happened in the previous week. But if you've got different people coming in every time, it creates issues as far as the crew concept and everybody working together. That's my thing about it.

"I guess if you're not changing a whole bunch of people all the time, [it's OK]. But it does create an issue as far as continuity from week to week when you're evaluating games and doing film study and all that kind of stuff."

Said referee Ronald Torbert: "I certainly like the chemistry that you're able to build when you're working with the same group, but at the same time, we work so hard at being consistent across the entire staff, it shouldn't matter if you're working with a different person this week than you did last week. The same rules and same officiating policies apply."

It's fair to ask if these steps are truly meant to address some of the NFL's officiating problems from last season, or simply to minimize exposure. It also leads to questions about whether the league is prioritizing some games (and teams) ahead of others.

Here's what I think: The league turned over more than 20 percent of its officials between 2013 and '15, creating an inevitable discrepancy in experience among its ranks. Former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira is among those who wondered if that turnover, and the accompanying pileup of inexperience, was contributing to some of what we saw last season. Perhaps this policy, a natural recognition that some of the NFL's officials are better equipped for pressure games than others, was overdue.

Most important is the flexibility the NFL now has to manage officials in the same way coaches handle players. There is no reason to be locked into a season's worth of assignments if subsequent events suggest a different direction would work better. The crew structure will remain intact, and a modest level of week-to-week accountability is now at the league's disposal. That shouldn't be a bad thing.