The NFL's system for evaluating the performance of its game officials will make a dramatic shift this season from focusing on officiating rather than on individual officials.
Instead of judging how well each official does his job, the league now will grade each crew. The top-rated crews at the end of the year will be assigned to postseason games rather than the previous method of having "all-star" crews of the highest-rated officials during the regular season work the playoffs, conference championship games and Super Bowl.
The concept, announced Tuesday at the league's annual meeting, is designed to promote better teamwork among the 17 crews that work together all season. It is seen as a way to help improve the quality of officiating during the season, while also preventing the officiating errors that occurred during the postseason.
"We're excited about it, because we have always hammered the importance of being a crew and working together as a crew and covering for each other as a crew," said Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officiating. "Yet our system was based on individuals and the evaluations was on individuals and the ultimate reward was individual, and that was (working) the playoffs.
"But we looked at it this year and decided to make it a crew-based evaluation system with crew-based rewards."
The exceptions to advancement to the playoffs are first- and second-year officials, who previously were eligible to advance to the postseason. The best officials not working playoff games would replace them, but that would still result in at least five officials who worked as a crew during the year handling postseason games. Last year, the least experienced officials in the postseason were three with two years of experience.
"Officiating, when you come out of college football and come into the NFL, you go through sequences, basically," said Pereira, a former official. "When you first start as a first-year official and you work in the preseason, it doesn't seem all that bad. And then all of a sudden you get in the regular season and it really notches up and you start to feel more and more of the pressure. You get past Week 8, heading into the second half of the season with the playoff contenders, and you really feel the pressure.
"And then when you get to the playoffs it gets to a whole other level. Historically, we've always said that's really almost a five-year program to where you really can grasp hold of the game and the philosophies and the rules and everything associated with officiating in this league."
Only the top eight crews (nine if the league switches from 12 to 14 playoff teams) would advance to the postseason. That's a total of 56 officials, 14 fewer than were selected under the previous "all-star" system.
The league has long considered the move, which has already been tried in major collegiate conferences, such as the SEC. "When those (changes) were announced, it was amazing to see how hard guys worked together on the field to make sure they got it right," Pereira said.
There was even greater incentive to make some sort of switch in the evaluation process after the controversy stemming from the San Francisco 49ers' 39-38 wild-card playoff win over the New York Giants. While attempting the winning field goal with six seconds left, a botched snap resulted in holder Matt Allen heaving a desperation pass that fell incomplete and ended the game. However, replays showed that the 49ers should have been called for pass interference, which would have resulted in offsetting penalties and given the Giants a second chance to win the game.
Two second-year officials -- side judge Doug Rosenbaum and line judge Carl Johnson -- were part of the crew. Rosenbaum served as the second umpire on the field-goal attempt, and it was later determined that he was unable to get in the best possible position to be able to make the pass-interference call. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue later ordered that officials be realigned through the balance of the playoffs so that the umpires would be better able to see any future passes that might be attempted on field-goal tries.
"While it seems that (postseason assignment) is the biggest attraction, to us the real benefit of this is the performance that we're going to get from games one through 256, the 17 weeks of the regular season," Pereira said. "Because groups knowing now that their performance, as a group of seven, will determine whether they advance to the playoffs will now work a lot harder together, will certainly learn each other's weaknesses and strengths, and be able to cover for each other. And, the bottom line, is that they'll work to get every single, solitary play right.
"We know it will foster a good atmosphere on the field during the regular season so that these guys will work all together. Quite frankly, on an individual basis, there is the tendency to back away (from a call) because in controversy you don't benefit. Now, with the crew (evaluation), if a person makes a mistake -- and it makes no difference if it's the referee or it's the back judge -- the whole crew is going to be responsible for that mistake."