Whilst concentration during the Super Bowl in Houston on Sunday will be on the two teams who have performed the best during the season to win through to the final, there is also another team there who are also at the top of their game.
That team will be wearing black and white stripes and are affectionately known as the Zebras although we normally refer to them as Refs or more correctly officials.
During the regular season, every play of every game is analysed by NFL league headquarters in New York and Officials are graded on the accuracy of their calls. This analysis is done with the hindsight of TV replay, a myriad of angles and able to be slowed down and watched frame by frame in HD. A luxury the officials on the field do not have.
I talked to Dean Blandino, Senior Vice President of Officiating about the officials grading process and he told me that in 2016 there were 40,008 plays and their accuracy was roughly 96%. This is an astonishing figure considering the speed and agility of the athletes on the field as well as the complex nature of the NFL rule book.
Dean’s former boss and now rules analyst for Fox Sports Mike Pereira summed up the level of expectation.
“The problem is it’s an impossible job to do in real time,” …”And they really do a great job.”
“Here’s what technology has done, and here’s what instant replay has done. I think it’s taken the level of expectation to perfection, and it’s not possible. Now, one mistake is not acceptable. You could have guys — a crew — with 163 plays, and they officiate 162 of them perfectly, but they miss one, and it becomes the story.”
People expect perfection but coaches, have you never called the wrong play, or players missed a block, dropped a pass or missed a tackle? Just remember that when you’re on the Refs’ back for one call you don’t like!
So when the NFL gets to the divisional play offs and Super Bowl, it is only the officials with the highest grading that are considered for the big games.
Heading up that team in the Super Bowl as Referee will be Carl Cheffers. Carl is in his 17th NFL season and his 9th as a Referee. He has worked ten postseason assignments, including four Wild Card Playoffs, four Divisional Playoffs, two Conference Championships but this will be his first year at the Super Bowl.
Carl wears #51 on his uniform, which is very prophetic as this is the 51st Super Bowl.
The other six officials for the game are also chosen from those that grade in the top positions. They are selected using a myriad of rules that dictate exactly which officials get the big game from those at the top. Amongst the considerations are that it will not go to the official who had it last year.
I also talked to Dean Blandino about selection of the Referee for the big game.
“Since 2008 Carl Cheffers has been one of our highest performers at the Referee position. His calm demeanor on the field has allowed him to handle all types of adversity and will serve him well on the biggest stage. The officiating crew is in great hands on Sunday.”
It will not be the first time the officials have worked together. Five of the seven worked the Steelers-Chiefs AFC divisional playoff game at Kansas City. The other two worked the Texans-Patriots AFC divisional game at New England.
The link between those two crews is Head Linesman Kent Payne, who is on Cheffers crew in regular season games. These two were at Wembley for the game between Washington and Cincinnati. The game was the first overtime in the International Series and also the first ever tie. I was Kent’s “box man” on the chain crew that day (both of us pictured above sharing a joke) and got to work with the two Super Bowl officials and can confirm how professional they are in their approach to each game.
A sentiment echoed by Blandino.
“For 13 seasons Kent Payne has demonstrated unparalleled excellence at the Head Linesman position. He has officiated a postseason game for 12 straight seasons and this will be his second Super Bowl assignment. He is the consummate professional both on and off the field.”
The other chain crew members from that game (pictured above) are all from the British American Football Referees’ Association (BAFRA). The officials for 99% of American Football games played in Britain are all members of BAFRA. Not only do BAFRA provide UK crews, they also provide members who officiate at European and World championship level too.
The UK game has seen a lot of growth in recent years with an 18.8% increase in adult kitted, 38% in under 17 contact and a massive 80% in the Women’s game, just in the past year.
I spoke to BAFA chairman Martin Cockerill about the growth in the game and he outlined that there are six new teams for the National League in 2017 and a further eight teams in associate status and looking to join the league in 2018.
The volume of UK officials has been growing steadily, with a 76% increase in active officials since 2011 but there needs to be more to keep pace with the demand for game coverage. If you used to play or coach or just have an interest in the game, then please get in touch with BAFRA and check if you have what it takes to make the crucial call. You never know, one day you may be walking out on the field at Wembley with the Super Bowl ref.
As a final thought about the Super Bowl officiating crew, remember, just like players from the winning team, officials get a Super Bowl ring too. Whilst they may not be as massive as those awarded to the players, they’re big enough to impress. The one pictured at the top of this article belongs to NFL official Gary Arthur.
Gary has not been spending time getting his nails right to compliment the ring, the picture was taken by Italian official Marco Sala and modelled for size on his other half’s finger. Chiara is also an official in Italy. The NFL may only have one female official, Europe has many more.