The timing couldn’t have been worse. Referee Shawn Smith’s crew was struggling Thursday night, hours after we learned that the NFL is now willing to fire officials during the season for poor performance.
Smith’s crew initially enforced a penalty incorrectly on the opening kickoff of the Houston Texans’ 42-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins. It missed an obvious trip on a first-quarter punt, called a questionable unnecessary-roughness penalty that gave the Dolphins a first down, and took away the catch of the year by Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins because of a mild push-off.
The natural question for fans, players and coaches alike: Would Smith and/or his crew be fired?
That almost certainly won’t happen, nor should it. But intentionally or otherwise, the NFL opened the window for that possibility — and certainly for questions along those lines — by firing down judge Hugo Cruz after five games this season. The move was cheered by fans because it provided near-instant accountability, but the truth is that NFL officials already are held accountable by a quieter process that has turned over roughly one-third of their members in the past five years.
This decision seemed guided as much by messaging as it was Cruz’s performance, and it came at a time when the NFL should be carefully considering the larger context of officiating before taking immediate action on any one individual.
In saying it would file a grievance, the NFL Referees Association called the decision a “knee-jerk” reaction “with an eye on public relations.” The move was surely met with approval from anyone, inside or outside the NFL, who doesn’t know how officials are evaluated or that the vast majority of calls they make are accurate.
And let us not forget that the league entered the season asking its most inexperienced group of referees in recent memory to navigate the most significant and complicated set of rule changes in a generation. As former NFL officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos warned at the time, the situation was going to “make for some tough Sundays watching football.” That context is important to any discussion about evaluation in 2018.
It’s fair to want officials held to the same standards as players and coaches, who routinely lose their jobs when they fall short on the field. But that doesn’t mean the same process should apply to them all. Cruz is the first NFL official in at least 50 years to be fired for performance reasons, and the decision sent shock waves through the NFL officiating community.
You might not have sympathy for a group of employees who were stunned to learn that they could be fired if they string together a bunch of bad days. To be fair, a similar fate awaits almost anyone in any job across the planet. But there are good reasons the NFL’s evaluation process has never before led to an in-season firing, a rationale I suspect most in the league office recognize. The procedure is designed not only to insulate officials from hasty decisions after games like the one Smith’s crew had Thursday night, but also to minimize resulting crew disruptions.
The NFL grades officials on every play of every game, but before now, it saved its big-picture evaluations for the end of the season. In short, it valued the in-season chemistry between crew members more than any benefit received from immediate termination.
When the regular season concludes, each official is placed into one of three tiers based on weekly grades. A poor season can lead to demotion and, historically, two consecutive years in the lowest group (Tier III) subjects an official to termination. And that has happened much more often than you might realize.
Best NFL Stories Of The Week
Roughly one-third of league officials — 40 of 121 — have been hired in the past five years. Some have been added to fill spots created by voluntary retirements, but many have been swapped out for poorly performing officials whose contracts were not renewed. The moves happened quietly, involving names most fans never know, and the only way it can be tracked publicly is to compare the officiating rosters from the current season to those from the previous ones.
To be sure, Cruz could hardly be viewed as a long-term problem. According to multiple sources, he had no disciplinary issues. More importantly, the NFL put him in Tier II last season, which made him eligible to work playoff games. Cruz’s fortunes fell fast in 2018, and the final straw was a missed call on an obvious false start by Los Angeles Chargers left tackle Russell Okung that should have negated a touchdown in Week 6 against the Cleveland Browns.
Why did the NFL feel compelled to move away from precedent in this way? First, it seems clear it is less concerned about crew chemistry than it once was. In fact, close observers have noticed more frequent mixing and matching of officials among crews this season. Commissioner Roger Goodell has long advocated for that approach, believing it would cut down on inconsistencies among crews. Cruz, for example, worked with four different referees in five games in 2018.
Otherwise, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the league wanted it known — internally if not publicly as well — that it would be more aggressive in responding to officiating concerns. I think postseason accountability makes more sense. Regardless, the league could have simply subbed out Cruz for one of several “swing officials” it has on staff to serve as injury replacements. If it wanted to, the league could have bid Cruz a much quieter farewell.
From a public perspective, incomplete judgment is part of the officiating territory. Fans, players and coaches often base their perceptions on a handful of mistakes rather than the totality of performance. According to the NFL’s own website, officials are “typically accurate on 95 to 97 percent of calls.”
The decision to fire Cruz will only further corrupt the gap between perception and reality of officiating competence. And Pandora’s box, one the NFL long tried to keep closed, is now open.