NFL ‘all-star’ referee teams are ruining the playoffs

In the NFC Championship Game, John Hussey’s team called multiple penalties against the 49ers and the Eagles got seven first downs per penalty, the most in a playoff game since 2002.

And anyone who isn’t an avid Chiefs fan was screaming at the one-sided refereeing by Ron Torbert’s team in the AFC Championship Game. Torbert’s crew missed several blocks in the back on Skyy Moore’s big punt return and multiple holding penalties on Patrick Mahomes’ third down at the end. There was also an embarrassing clocking issue in the fourth quarter when officials failed to stop play in time and then handed the Chiefs a “redo” on third down.

Bad officiating was all everyone was talking about in Monday’s media cycle — not the brilliance of Mahomes, but how tilted the officiating was against the Bengals.

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

“Cincinnati got hosed yesterday,” he said, referring to missed calls and back blocks, in addition to the “redo.” “You just can’t let that sort of thing happen in these league games.”

The officials who worked Sunday’s games are among the highest rated in the NFL this season. Officials are graded on every call of every game they work on. Being awarded a conference championship game is certainly well deserved.

The problem is that officials who work together in the playoffs usually have no experience with each other. While the NFL divides officials into 17 teams for the regular season, playoff games are officiated by a combination of the season’s top-ranked officials.

In theory, star crews shouldn’t matter; a good official is a good official, and they must 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.

All-star teams are in some ways worse than regular teams because officials don’t know each other’s tendencies and don’t anticipate moves as transparently.

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

Position NFC Championship AFC Championship
Arbitrator John Hussey Ronald Torbert
Linesman Tom PodrazaTorbert Jeff Seeman (Chiefs)
back judge Terrence MilesNovak Todd PrukopBlake
Arbitrator Alan EckHussey Ramon GeorgeNovak
field judge Jabir WalkerHussey Tom HillBlake
Judge low Dana McKenzie (Blakeman) Kent PayneRogers
side judge Allen BaynesHussey Boris CheekAllen
Replay James NicholsonHussey Roddy Ames (Hill)


Additionally, these games marked the first and only time these specific crews will work together. They didn’t work Wild Card or Divisional Round matches, meaning they didn’t have live reps together before refereeing two of the most important clashes 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 actually appears to be the work of the NFL Referees Association, which demanded a 2012 collective bargaining agreement in the wake of a strike by umpires.

The NFL doesn’t appear to be able to change the system without negotiation, and the latest CBA runs until May 2026. Representatives for the NFLRA and the NFL Competition Committee declined to comment on Monday, meaning generally that they know there is a problem to be solved.

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

Prior to 2004, top-rated teams typically worked in playoff games, even if a member of that team was one of the lowest-rated in their position. The NFL moved to a hybrid system in 2004, which replaced low-rated officials. The NFL and NFLRA then agreed to the pure “all-star” model in 2012.

This year isn’t the first to see major controversy in the playoffs. Just Google “Dez caught it” or “Saints passes the interference”.

Daopolous, a Super Bowl XXXIII referee, thinks giving as many officials as possible a playoff assignment hurts the product. This year’s playoffs featured six crews at Wild Card weekend, four new crews in the divisional round, two new crews for the conference championships, and one of four divisional crews is chosen for the Super Bowl (run this year by arbitrator Carl Cheffers).

Daopolous thinks the best officials should work the wildcard round and let the best continue to progress through the playoffs, so the Super Bowl team ultimately works four playoff games. That would at least give the all-star teams a few games to get to grips with each other.

“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. “It should be about putting the best guys on the pitch.”

The NFL can actually put the best officials on the field. But the star system doesn’t put referees in a position to succeed, and it ruined two big games on Sunday.

Ben Volin can be reached at

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