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NFL’s referee turnover could create some sticky situations this fall

Gene Steratore makes a call during the second quarter of Super Bowl LII.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/Getty Images

NFL free agency hit a second wave this past week, but it didn’t involve any players.

Instead, it was the TV networks making a couple of surprise moves. NBC hired 20-year veteran referee Terry McAulay as its rules analyst for “Sunday Night Football” and Notre Dame broadcasts. And CBS hired Gene Steratore, who refereed the Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl in February, as its rules analyst for its Sunday NFL broadcasts as well as college basketball’s March Madness.

The moves were great for the networks, but another tough blow for NFL officiating. The departures of McAulay and Steratore now make four longtime referees who have left the NFL this year. Ed Hochuli and Jeff Triplette each announced his retirement shortly after last season, with Triplette recently taking a job as a rules analyst with ESPN.


That’s 85 years of NFL officiating experience leaving this year, with five Super Bowls refereed between them. McAulay, Steratore, and Hochuli were among the NFL’s best and worked the playoffs almost every year.

Their replacements are a little greener. Hochuli’s is his son, Shawn Hochuli, who has worked four years in the NFL. Alex Kemp also has just four years as an NFL official. Shawn Smith and Clay Martin, the other two new referees, have been in the NFL for just three seasons.

All four have college football experience as well, but the NFL game has several different nuances.

“I’ve never been involved in a season where you went with four new referees, and four referees that really haven’t been around the league that long,” said Mike Pereira, a former NFL head of officiating who was one of the first to leave for a TV gig when he went to Fox in 2010. “And first-year referees aren’t eligible for playoffs, so you’re going to dig deeper into the remaining stash of referees. That could create a problem, too.”


Terry McAulay (right) will move from the field to NBC this fall as a rules analyst.Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini/File 2017/FR171008 AP via AP

The NFL has had a troubling lack of consistency in its officiating ranks over the last couple of years.

A total of nine officials retired this offseason, including the four referees. Dean Blandino, the head of officiating from 2013-16, also abruptly left his post last offseason for a gig with Fox. Plus, longtime referees Walt Anderson, Walt Coleman, Pete Morelli, and Tony Corrente are believed to be on their way out in a year or two.

This year, in addition to promoting four officials to referee, the NFL hired six officials from college and promoted a seventh from its developmental program.

Bringing young blood into the officiating ranks certainly isn’t a bad thing, but there is a noticeable amount of turnover and lack of experience. And this could prove to be a challenge this fall as the NFL looks to institute tricky and controversial issues such as the catch rule and the new rule that bans leading with your helmet.

“They’ve got some big problems, because they don’t have the experienced officials to fill in for the four referees they lost,” said Jim Daopoulos, a Marlborough native and a former 23-year veteran of the NFL officiating department. “They just don’t have that many good, strong, veteran officials that can step in there and help a young referee. This is just a problem they’ve had over the years, and they haven’t done a good job of preparing for this turnover.”


The departure of four officials doesn’t necessarily mean that something is rotten in NFL officiating. Triplette and Hochuli had been around for three decades and were contemplating retirement for a while. And Daopoulos said that Steratore, a 15-year NFL veteran, had back and knee issues that were really slowing him down. Steratore has also officiated college basketball for decades.

The life of an NFL official is still pretty good. The travel is contained to the weekend. And while their exact pay isn’t known, the officials’ lockout of 2013 produced a new collective bargaining agreement that will pay each an average of $205,000 in 2019. In addition to getting paid for games, NFL officials also get paid $2,200 plus expenses for a day of work, Daopoulos said — whether that’s to attend an officiating clinic in New York or work a minicamp practice.

Ed Hochuli joined the NFL in 1990.Patrick Semansky/AP/Associated Press

“It’s not like the NBA, it’s not baseball. If you have a Sunday game, you travel Saturday, you get home Sunday night,” Daopoulos said. “You spend a lot of time during the week studying and working with other guys, but it’s not in the same category as the other major sports.”

McAulay’s departure, though, was sudden and unexpected. He worked the playoffs in 15 of 20 seasons, and was the referee for three Super Bowls, including the first Patriots-Eagles tilt.

But the TV networks are serious about having top-notch rules analysts, and are offering significantly more money than the NFL pays its officials.

“[McAulay] just said it didn’t make any sense not to take it,” Daopoulos said. “He got a three-year contract, and he doesn’t have to put up with everything now.”


Pereira said he has no regrets about leaving the NFL for the TV booth.

“There’s certainly a lot less pressure,” Pereira said. “You have some pressure when you’re in the booth or making an observation on Sundays. But it doesn’t carry with you on Monday, you don’t wait for your grade on Tuesday, and you don’t have to refuse your negative grade on Wednesday.”

The NFL will survive all this turnover among the officials, but it could make for some sticky situations this fall, especially considering the new rules that are being implemented.

“I guess you could look at this as something negative. I think overall it’s positive for officiating,” Pereira said. “It’s nothing to me they can’t overcome, but it’s probably a little bit of shame that four had [retire] at once.”


Why did Winston get three games?

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Roger Goodell and the NFL office handed out two punishments this past week related to discrimination and sexual assault, but their response seems more than a little underwhelming.

Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston on Thursday was suspended for three games to start the season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy by inappropriately touching an Uber driver in 2016.

Why did Winston only get three games, when the NFL supposedly changed the standard punishment to six games in the wake of the Ray Rice incident back in 2014? We are left to wonder.


In its press release, the NFL acknowledged it cut a deal with Winston, who agreed not to fight the punishment and could have his suspension increased if he does not comply with certain criteria. It’s pretty much the same thing the league did with Rice in 2014, when they cut a deal to suspend him only two games despite his heinous actions.

Perhaps the NFL didn’t want another messy legal situation, with Winston fighting a six-game suspension in courts. Or perhaps it didn’t want to brand one of the league’s potential young stars as a sexual offender.

Jason Behnken/AP/File 2016/FR171457 AP via AP

Regardless, the NFL had yet another chance to look tough against sexual assault, and instead looked soft. Not only is Winston’s suspension half of what it should be (and one game fewer than Tom Brady got for Deflategate), but the NFL and Winston never said explicitly what he did or what he was apologizing for.

The NFL also whiffed in the Jerry Richardson investigation, which concluded on Thursday. Richardson’s punishment amounts to a slap on the pinkie — a $2.75 million fine, which he can scrape off of the $2.25 billion he will be receiving for selling the Panthers.

Like with Winston, the NFL hasn’t stated explicitly what Richardson did to warrant his banishment from the league, other than to acknowledge that it was some form of workplace sexual discrimination.

That $2.75 million fine will be donated to women’s and minority groups, but that’s basically the extent of the punishment. The most pressing issue with the Richardson case was the use of nondisclosure agreements to silence the victims with a cash settlement, and the only reason Richardson’s workplace harassment came to light was because some of the victims violated their NDAs.

The NFL’s investigator, Mary Jo White, recommended that the NFL outlaw use of NDAs, but her recommendation was not put into action. The NFL only said that the league’s Conduct Committee will consider it before the 2018 season.


Some positive news to report

Some reminders that NFL players do plenty of good on their own time.

Redskins cornerback Josh Norman and Saints linebacker Demario Davis spent time last week in San Antonio handing out backpacks stuffed with supplies to immigrant families separated at the border.

“You see kids on television get detained and how they are getting detained, and you want to come in and give a little bit of relief to those families,” Norman said, via KSAT-TV. “We’re not going to be able to help everybody but somebody, we can brighten faces and that matters. That means something.”

Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus donated through his foundation $125,000 to build a three-classroom school in Haiti, which he visited for the second consecutive summer.

“It is one thing to give money to something and hope for the best,” Dareus said, via the Florida Times-Union. “It is quite something else to witness your efforts and see the gratitude and thankfulness of not just the children, but the whole community, for doing what you’re doing.”

And Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin got his degree from West Virginia last week, six years after leaving the university. It signifies an impressive turnaround for Irvin, who dropped out of high school, was homeless, sold drugs, and spent a brief time in jail during a troubled youth in Atlanta.

“The odds were stacked up against me to get my bachelor’s degree. It was a surreal moment,” Irvin told the Associated Press. “I kind of put it up there with the Super Bowl, neck and neck. It was a great moment, not only for me but for my son and my family. I’m glad I got to experience it.”

Cohen will get around

Matt Nagy helped make a star out of Tyreek Hill, unleashing the 5-foot-10-inch, 185-pound scatback as the most dynamic all-purpose weapon in the NFL over the past two years when Nagy served as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator.

Now the head coach for the Bears, Nagy has similar plans for Tarik Cohen, a 5-6, 180-pound dynamo who lined up everywhere in the Bears’ offense during spring workouts.

Tarik Cohen scored four touchdowns last year: two rushing TDs, a receiving TD, and a punt return TD.Nam Y. Huh/AP/Associated Press

Cohen had 1,578 all-purpose yards last year, and became the first rookie since Gale Sayers in 1965 to score touchdowns via rushing, receiving, passing, and punt return.

Cohen is excited about how Nagy plans to use his versatility.

“I feel like if I could kick the football, he’d also want me to kick the football, too,” Cohen said last week, via “The Jim Rome Show.” “It just goes to show how many places he has me at. I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been at every position. It’s crazy.”

Prominent promotion

The NFL finally announced a new top spokesperson to replace Joe Lockhart, who departed in March for a gig as a CNN analyst. The league promoted Jocelyn Moore to the position of executive vice president of communications and public affairs.

Moore spent the last two years as the NFL’s senior vice president for public policy and government affairs. A University of Florida grad, Moore had a 15-year career in the US Senate, including roles as Deputy Staff Director of the Senate Finance Committee, Deputy Chief of Staff and Policy Director for Senator Ron Wyden, and Legislative Director for Senator John D. Rockefeller IV.

Moore is a trailblazer for the NFL, becoming the first female and the first minority to hold the title of the league’s top spokesperson.

Extra points

That Instagram video from Tom Brady throwing routes with Julian Edelman this past week was nice and all, but it shouldn’t do much to assuage those who are concerned that Brady hasn’t put in enough work this offseason. I’d rather see Brady work out with his new receivers, or at least with guys who won’t be suspended for the first four weeks of the season . . . As for Edelman, he reportedly argued in his appeal that the substance he tested positive for isn’t recognizable by the NFL, and that the drug collectors messed up the testing protocol. What he didn’t say, though, was, “I didn’t do it.” . . . Interesting strategy by the Buccaneers, who don’t exactly have the best fan support in Tampa. Per the Tampa Bay Times, the Bucs will hold just six practices open to the public during training camp, down from 13 a year ago. The Bucs will allow fans into most of their practices, but the majority will only be open to season ticket-holders and club level/suite patrons. I get that the Bucs are trying to sell season tickets, but this probably isn’t the right approach. As the Patriots have learned, free training camp practices are a tremendous way to get fans (and kids) hooked on the product and to sell lots of team gear. Limiting the fan experience only serves to reduce interest in the team . . . The NFL probably isn’t allowing Chiefs tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to put “M.D.” on the back of his jersey because the league doesn’t want to open the floodgates to players putting nicknames on their uniforms, similar to when the league denied Brandon Marshall the option to wear green shoes to highlight mental health awareness. But this should have been an easy exception to make. The NFL can allow players to put any college degree they earn on their nameplate without opening the door to nicknames like “He Hate Me.” Duvernay-Tardif graduated medical school while competing in the NFL, a fantastic achievement that the league should want to promote and celebrate.

Quote of the week

“It would just be crazy to get a sack on Tom Brady. I mean, he’s been playing since the early 1900s. Just getting that opportunity to sack someone that could be my grandfather, that’s very, very exciting. But also if I ever did get a sack, I think my mom said she’d be mad at me. Like if I hurt Tom Brady, she would never forgive me. And there’s a lot of people in Boston that would never forgive me.”

— Raiders rookie defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, a Xaverian High graduate, speaking in a team Facebook Live video last week.

Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.