Rating refs touchy subject for NFL coaches

Veterans Mike Carey, left, and Ed Hochuli score high with many NFL coaches. Getty Images

Officiating can be an emotional subject for NFL head coaches. Pivotal calls that hurt their teams can remain fresh in their memories for years. In extreme cases, a botched call can contribute to a coaching staff's demise.

One prominent head coach offered a terse response when ESPN.com asked him to name the two best referees in the game.

"None of them," the coach huffed.

The response wasn't particularly surprising, but it wasn't the norm, either.
Twenty-two of the 32 NFL head coaches named names when asked the question during a wide-ranging ESPN.com survey. Fifteen head coaches named at least one official when asked to single out the worst referees in the game. (Coaches were given anonymity for their candor.)
The results were as mixed as the coaches' experiences with various officials presiding over their games.

Mike Carey and Ed Hochuli, two of the most familiar referees, commanded the most positive votes, with eight apiece. None of the other 15 regular referees who worked games in 2007 commanded more than three votes of support from coaches.

Hochuli, an Arizona trial attorney with comic-book musculature and post-call explanations precise enough to hold up in court, has worked two Super Bowls since becoming a referee in 1992. Carey, a former college running back whose company manufactures snow-skiing accessories, is one of two African-American referees and the first to work a Super Bowl.

"The guys that I think are really good, and I must say that most of our guys are really good, they don't impose themselves on the game," said Buffalo Bills coach Dick Jauron, who declined to name referees for the survey. "You don't necessarily notice them. The game is under control. And when there are any issues, they get to you quickly and they explain them, and they explain them in a way that you understand."

The league in recent years has asked officials to explain their rulings more thoroughly, for the benefit of coaches and fans. The idea is to eliminate confusion while instilling confidence in the referee, his crew and the process.
Beyond seeking officials who get calls right, league officiating director Mike Pereira also looks for referees with strong leadership skills and the ability to project confidence.

"How does he go about preparing the crew?" Pereira said. "Does he focus on the negative or does he focus more on the positive? Those aspects are extremely important to me.

"And then the one that I also can't deny is, what does he project? How does he project himself when the camera is on and when the microphone is on? I do believe that if people have confidence in the referee, then they have confidence in the whole crew."

Coaches' confidence in Hochuli and Carey went only so far. Despite their 16 combined positive votes, both also generated more negative responses than every official but one. Gerald Austin, who is headed for retirement after 26 years as an NFL official and 18 as a referee, finished with a league-high six negative votes. No head coach listed him among the best referees.

Austin's crews assessed a league-low 8.9 penalties per game last season. Austin also averaged twice as many replay reversals per game as the other referees. Coaches won 11 of 14 challenges against Austin last season, easily the highest reversal rate among referees (the league average was less than 37 percent).

But that doesn't necessarily mean Austin graded out poorly overall. The league assigned him to work the San Diego Chargers' divisional playoff game at Indianapolis. Austin worked two Super Bowls in past seasons. He is also a past winner of the Art McNally Award for sportsmanship.

Austin was one of 10 referees assigned to work playoff games last season. Scott Green, Walt Coleman, Hochuli and Walt Anderson worked wild-card weekend. Carey, Jerome Boger and Peter Morelli joined Austin during the divisional round. Terry McAulay and Jeff Triplette worked the championship games before Carey drew Super Bowl XLII.

"To me, the guys that are consistent, call everything the same way every time, and the guys that will explain to you what happened, that is what I like," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who did not name the referees he considered the worst. "And most of our guys are that way."

Four coaches ranked Hochuli among the worst referees. Three ranked Carey among the worst. Triplette (three), Larry Nemmers (two) and Bill Leavy (one) also drew negative votes.

Three head coaches listed Tony Corrente and Bill Carollo among the best referees. Leavy, Nemmers and Walt Coleman each drew two positive votes. John Parry, a first-year referee in 2007, received the other positive vote.

Subtracting negative votes from positive votes left Carey at plus-five, followed by Hochuli at plus-four, Corrente and Carollo at plus-three, Coleman at plus-two and Leavy and Parry at plus-one. Nemmers was even. At the other end, Austin was minus-six and Triplette was minus-three.

Austin and Nemmers are retiring, Pereira said. Officials Carl Cheffers and Al Riveron were promoted to replace them.

Seven referees finished with zero votes of any kind: Anderson, Boger, Green, McAulay, Morelli, Gene Steratore and Ron Winter.

The NFL values coaches' input in evaluating officials, Pereira said.

The league's annual officiating meetings this month will include a panel featuring Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, a current player and a current official. The discussion will focus on what coaches and players value in an official, what information they want to hear from an official and what frustrates them about officiating.

Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he values officials who hold up well under pressure.

"The main thing is how he operates and how he functions during a game," Shanahan said. "Some guys communicate very well to the coach; other guys communicate very well to the players. The bottom line is, does a guy do a good job? Does he call a good game? And that is the key -- not how he communicates with a coach or with a player. Does he make the right calls?"

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.