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The NFL’s ‘all-star’ officiating crews are ruining the playoffs

John Hussey (left) led the "all-star" crew that officiated the 49ers-Eagles game. The Eagles got the most first downs by penalty in a playoff game since 2002.Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

We all understand the concept of an “all-star” team. It’s supposed to be a collection of the best of the best.

But what if an all-star team makes the product worse?

That’s what the NFL is facing after both conference championship games were marred by questionable officiating from a collection of the NFL’s best.

In the NFC Championship game, John Hussey’s crew called several ticky-tack penalties against the 49ers and the Eagles got seven first downs by penalty, the most in a playoff game since 2002.

And anyone who isn’t a passionate Chiefs fan was howling at the one-sided officiating from Ron Torbert’s crew in the AFC Championship game. Torbert’s crew missed multiple blocks in the back on Skyy Moore’s big punt return and multiple holding penalties on Patrick Mahomes’s third-down scramble at the end. There also was an embarrassing clock mishap in the fourth quarter when the officials didn’t stop a play in time and then handed the Chiefs a “do-over” on third down.

The poor officiating was all anyone was talking about in Monday’s media cycle. Not Mahomes’s brilliance, but how tilted the officiating was against the Bengals.

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To see if we are overreacting and just looking for scapegoats, I reached out to Jim Daopolous, who was an NFL on-field official from 1989-2000 and a supervisor of officials until 2015.

“Cincinnati got hosed [Sunday],” he said, rattling off the missed holding calls and blocks in the back, in addition to the do-over. “You just can’t let that stuff happen in these championship games.”

The officials who worked Sunday’s games are among the NFL’s highest-rated this season. Officials get graded on every call of every game they work. Getting assigned a conference championship game is definitely well earned.

Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor talks with referee Ronald Torbert and line judge Jeff Seeman during the second half of Sunday's game.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

The problem is the officials who work together in the playoffs usually don’t have any experience with each other. While the NFL splits officials into 17 crews for the regular season, playoff games are officiated by a combination of the highest-graded officials from the season.

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In theory, the all-star crews shouldn’t matter; a good official is a good official, and they should be interchangeable. But they are human, and communication is important. A lack of cohesion can lead to dysfunctional moments, as seen in the Bengals-Chiefs game.

The all-star teams are in some ways worse than the regular crews, because the officials don’t know each others’ tendencies and don’t anticipate moves as seamlessly.

The eight officials in the AFC Championship came from seven officiating crews, and the eight in the NFC game came from four crews. Line judge Tom Podraza, who was a member of Torbert’s crew during the regular season, was paired with Hussey, not Torbert.

Championship game officiating crews Regular-season crew in parentheses
Position NFC Championship AFC Championship
Referee John Hussey Ronald Torbert
Line judge Tom Podraza (Torbert) Jeff Seeman (Cheffers)
Back judge Terrence Miles (Novak) Todd Prukop (Blake)
Umpire Alan Eck (Hussey) Ramon George (Novak)
Field judge Jabir Walker (Hussey) Tom Hill (Blake)
Down judge Dana McKenzie (Blakeman) Kent Payne (Rogers)
Side judge Allen Baynes (Hussey) Boris Cheek (Allen)
Replay James Nicholson (Hussey) Roddy Ames (Hill)
SOURCE: NFL

What’s more, these games marked the first and only time that these specific crews will work together. They didn’t work the wild-card or Divisional Round games, meaning they had no live reps together before officiating two of the most important matchups of the season. Both games were one-sided; the Niners lost the penalty differential, 11-4, and the Bengals lost it, 9-4.

It’s easy to blame the NFL for this, but it looks to be the work of the NFL Referees Association, which demanded the setup in a 2012 collective bargaining agreement following a referee strike.

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The NFL doesn’t seem to be able tweak the system without bargaining, and the CBA runs through May 2026. Representatives of the NFLRA and the NFL’s Competition Committee declined comment Monday, which usually means they know there’s a problem to be fixed.

The theory behind all-star crews makes sense. The referees want a system in which the highest-rated officials are rewarded with the best games. The best officials get the Super Bowl, and the next best get a conference championship game.

Prior to 2004, the highest-rated crews generally worked playoff games, even if a member of that crew was one of the lowest-rated at his position. The NFL switched to a hybrid system in 2004, which allowed low-rated officials to be replaced. The NFL and the NFLRA then agreed to the pure “all-star” model in 2012.

This year is hardly the first to see a major controversy in the playoffs. Just Google “Dez caught it” or “Saints pass interference.”

Daopolous, an umpire for Super Bowl XXXIII, believes giving as many officials as possible a postseason assignment is hurting the product. This year’s playoffs had six crews on Wild Card Weekend, four new crews in the Divisional Round, and two new crews for the conference championships. One of the four divisional crews — headlined this year by referee Carl Cheffers — is picked for the Super Bowl.

Daopolous believes the best officials should work the wild-card round, and let the best keep advancing throughout the playoffs, so the Super Bowl crew ultimately works four playoff games. It would at least give the all-star crews a few games to get the hang of each other.

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“For all the years I was up there [at the league office], I always wanted to do it like the NBA. The best guys work the first round and you keep working them until they don’t do well,” said Daopolous, a Marlborough native who now lives in Florida. “This should be about putting the best guys on the field.”

The NFL may in fact be putting the best officials on the field, but the all-star system isn’t putting the officials in a position to succeed, and it marred two big games Sunday.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.