NFL referee Brad Allen gets another game with playoff implications this week as the Ravens host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday. This, of course, comes a week after Allen was part of a controversial finish between the Lions and Cowboys.
Some have interpreted the assignment as a show of support from the NFL for Allen, who identified a different Lions offensive lineman reporting as eligible for a 2-point conversion play that was ultimately penalized last week. Instead, a source tells CBS Sports that Week 18 assignments for officials went out as early as the first week of December.
Though the NFL may not be making such a loud statement with the Allen assignment as some think, the league has essentially shown through other actions that it backs Allen.
The league sent out an officiating video to all coaches and general managers on Tuesday reminding them of rules pertaining to players reporting as eligible. The video, narrated by NFL SVP of officiating training and development Walt Coleman, uses clips solely from the Lions-Cowboys game to make the point that it was the Lions who were at fault for the penalty.
“… It is the responsibility of the player to be sure that change in status is clearly communicated to the referee by both a physical signal with his hands — up and down in front of his chest — and to report to the referee his intention to report as an eligible receiver,” says Coleman, who later adds that the “process has been in place for many years.”
If the league felt Allen was in the wrong or the call had been blown, this video would have never been created. And someone from the league office would have funneled word back to Detroit that they screwed it up, as is the case in the instances where huge officiating mistakes in crucial times cost teams games. That has not happened here.
NFL officiating has taken its lumps for as long as there have been stripes. But commissioner Roger Goodell has been issuing full-throated support for his officials lately.
“I don’t think it’s ever been better in the league,” Goodell said last February ahead of the Super Bowl.
And in December, he said they “do an extraordinary job” and that he’s “incredibly proud” of how they do their job.
There have been calls for the NFL to make officials full-time employees. The thought goes that if they’re full-time, they can focus all their efforts on officiating and make fewer mistakes.
League sources have told CBS Sports over the years that it’s an unreasonable theory. Many of the officials have full-time jobs. Even if the league matches or exceeds their current salaries, would officials still want to leave their jobs for a full-time gig with the NFL? If these men and women are the best of the best, and if any decent percentage of them don’t join full-time, wouldn’t you be diluting the officiating talent pool?
Further, if officials are full time, that would make any potential mistake even more magnified since the idea is they would become exponentially better at their roles. If they are to spend 40 hours a week every week between February and September preparing for their on-field roles, there’s no excuse for the slightest human error.
Allen’s assignment this Saturday should not be construed as a statement from the league, though. Even if the NFL believed Allen got the call wrong last week, it is still hard to fathom a scenario where he would have been pulled from the upcoming week’s assignment.
The postseason assignments are always the telltale signs of how well officials did in the season. If you grade out well, you get a playoff game. If you grade out the best, you get the Super Bowl. If you grade out poorly… see you next preseason.
There are 17 referees rostered by the NFL, and there are 13 playoff games. It’s reasonable to assume that if you don’t get a game, you graded out in the bottom-four among referees.
Last year, 12 referees called the 13 playoff games. Carl Cheffers was the lone duplicate, getting a divisional round game before reffing Super Bowl LVII.
Since becoming a white hat in 2014, Allen has reffed five playoff games. His first playoff game came in the 2016 season between the Lions and Seahawks. The following year he got his lone divisional round game between the Jaguars and Steelers. And, oddly enough, he has officiated each of the last three Buffalo Bills wild card games: vs. Colts, vs. Patriots and vs. Dolphins last year.
He did not get a playoff assignment in his first two years as a referee, and after what would have been graded out as his best season — 2017, by virtue of getting a divisional-round playoff game — he didn’t get another playoff game until the 2020 season.
In the coming weeks it will become clear how Allen graded out in the NFL this season. But for now, it’s also clear what the league thinks of how he handled last week’s 2-point play.