Scorn them if you must, but football would not be the same without its officials. NFL fans watch 22 men crumple each other into a grunting pile of flesh, again and again, every weekend, for months. Imagine what a dull spectacle this would be without the occasional intermission of a person, dressed like a zebra, stopping play to recite jargon while he performs semaphore. Why, the game would make no sense.
It is the job of the head zebra-semaphore-person, or “referee,” to bring a certain order to the chaos on the field. On the surface, this is a straightforward assignment. During the week, you study film and brush up on the league’s latest “points of emphasis.” On game day, you enforce the rules, keep the players’ tempers in check, and screw the New Orleans Saints if possible.
Despite a simple job description on paper, in practice the role of NFL referee makes some allowance for style. (There are, after all, a variety of ways to screw the Saints.) The referees have personalities that come through the screen, faintly, as we repeatedly watch them settle crucial matters of football law. With familiarity, the referees become like little TV judges, hosting tiny 15-second judge shows that are nestled inside an NFL broadcast. It’s almost too cute.
But if referees are the TV judges of football, how do they compare to actual TV judges? That is the question I endeavor to answer, at excessive length. As I see it, the NFL referees, when they make any impression at all, fall into three general schools. You have your Judge Judys, your Judge Joe Browns, and your Judge Wapners.
The Judge Judys of football, like Judith Sheindlin herself, seek to extract the most drama possible from the cases that come before them. Judge Judy has dominated syndication ratings for two decades because Sheindlin amplifies. Her permanent outrage makes it seem like the moral fiber of Western civilization hangs in the balance as she, say, decides a dispute over a neighbor’s dog who barks too much. She creates a surplus of nervous energy by shouting, gesticulating, and uttering her beloved catchphrases, such as “Shut up.” Judge Judy aims for maximum spectacle and achieves it.
The standards of decorum for NFL referees are such that the refs can’t exactly ape Sheindlin’s snark and bombast, but there are other, subtler ways to punch up the drama of a penalty call. No referee is craftier at exploiting the tension of a moment than Clete Blakeman, a standard-bearer for the Judge Judy school of refereeing. A 12-year veteran of the NFL, Blakeman is the only referee in the league whose first name sounds like a piece of sporting equipment, now that the venerable Mouthguard Jones has retired. It’s as if Blakeman was destined for stardom.
Blakeman’s stage presence is most evident when he makes a pass interference call, as seen above, or any other call with inherent suspense. Pass interference is a penalty that can be called on either the offense or the defense, so the announcement of the foul creates a sense of anticipation that Blakeman likes to milk. “Pass interference…” he will say, letting the mystery hang in the air for a moment as he feels the crowd edge forward in their seats. Then: “…OFFENSE!” He pounces on the word, punctuating it with a vigorous arm jab in the direction of the transgressing team. Here Blakeman, an inveterate scenery chewer, pauses once more—for applause or boos, depending—before meting out the perfunctory nuts and bolts of his ruling.
Blakeman would probably tell you that he employs a deliberate cadence for the sake of clarity. Blakeman’s agent would probably tell you that he’s available for summer stock.
During the 15-season run of Judge Joe Brown, the show’s eponymous arbitrator brought a low-key vibe to his make-believe bench, serving as a sort of counterpoint to Sheindlin. If Judge Judy’s energy is, “SHUT UP, IDIOTS!” Judge Joe Brown’s was, “Simmer down, idiots.” Brown would begin each case by distractedly reading through pertinent details of the litigation at hand, communicating with the verve of a Boca Raton retiree reviewing a restaurant check. Only occasionally would Brown get his dander up, typically when he was telling some young scofflaw to get a job, or pull his pants up, or get a job pulling pants up. (It’s honest work.)
Unlike Judge Judy-style referees who play up the game’s dramatic energy, members of the Judge Joe Brown school—exemplified by 25th-year official Tony Corrente—use their aloof demeanor to tamp down the swirling emotions of the game.
In the third quarter of this season’s opener between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, Corrente turned on his mic to announce, in his lazy drawl, the result of a down in which Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers had appeared to fumble the ball. “The fumble on the play was recovered by Green Bay,” Corrente said, glancing aimlessly around the field, as if his mind were preoccupied with other matters. (“Should I have orange juice for my snack tonight,” he wondered to himself, “or treat myself with orange juice and crackers?”)
As Green Bay fans in the crowd roared at Corrente’s explanation of the fumble, he hastened to curb their enthusiasm. “However,” Corrente continued, and by now he was just wandering wherever the hell he felt like, giving not a single shit about the TV cameras trying to keep him framed in a tiny split-screen rectangle. Corrente proceeded to note that the Packers had committed holding, so the down was void in any case. It was a quintessential Corrente call, an anticlimax that left no one happy. Thus the frenzy of the madding crowd was quelled. Simmer down, idiots.
On his show, Judge Joe Brown did not lose his cool often, but when he did, he made it count. This has held true even in retirement: Brown was jailed in 2015 on a contempt-of-court charge after he pompously berated a magistrate. The magistrate warned Judge Joe Brown multiple times, but Brown kept on ranting, because apparently that’s how badly he needed to berate a magistrate that day.
Similarly, Corrente cannot always maintain his air of heavy-lidded detachment. He needs to let off steam, too, and he has done so in the past by swearing while his mic is open, a habit that Block & Tackle has previously noted, with admiration. I bring up Corrente’s filthy mouth again so I can re-post the 2012 clip of Indianapolis Colts radio announcers getting a near-fatal case of the vapors after Corrente dropped an F-bomb on a hot mic. The Indy radio team’s reaction, a 45-second meltdown utterly devoid of professionalism, is so delightful that it almost makes me want to listen to football on the radio more often. But no, mere audio is not enough—I need to SEE the truck commercials.
Joseph Wapner was the first person to preside over The People’s Court, which defined the judge-show genre as we know it. In effect, he was the original American TV judge. In Wapner’s era, a judge show wasn’t a personality-driven star vehicle the way it is today. The court-on-TV format itself, rather than the person in the robe, was the novelty. In an early 1983 promo for an episode of The People’s Court, embedded above, Wapner barely speaks, and only off-camera. Instead, the details of the dispute take the focus.
Imagine a Judge Judy commercial that didn’t feature Judge Judy telling her litigants, in so many words, that they embody everything wrong with America. That’s Judge Judy’s emotional hook: She makes viewers feel like society is broken, except when Judge Judy is yelling at it.
The People’s Court operated in a different context. Wapner was there to make people feel like society was working, and working before their very eyes, no less, thanks to the magic of television. To this end, Wapner was more functional than Judy and her ilk. It’s not that he was devoid of personality. He was stern, he was crusty. To the extent those are personality traits, they were at least enough to make him a pop culture icon. For instance, he once settled a playful beef between Johnny Carson and David Letterman on The Tonight Show (proving himself the rare interlocutor who was able to tame Letterman—Wapner was sharp).
But the primary purpose of the Judge Wapner persona was to impart credibility on the whole notion of a judge show—an untested concept in the early ’80s. Here was a program that proposed to debase the lofty halls of justice by recreating them in the low, plebeian space of television (a divide that The People’s Court highlighted in its title). Like the copious wood paneling in his faux courtroom, the white-haired Wapner put a veneer of sober legitimacy over a potentially crass product. He was well-versed in the law. He was direct. He was all business. He was compassionate yet self-assured as he explained the legal justifications for a ruling. Wapner’s performance carried an implicit message: The justice system works, even when it’s remade for TV.
This exegesis of a deceased television judge brings me, at last, to Bill Vinovich. During a Sunday Night Football broadcast last year, NBC announcer Al Michaels noted with bemusement that Vinovich was assigned to a disproportionate number of the league’s flagship games. “Gotta get Bill to join AFTRA—it’s his fourth Sunday Night game of the season,” Michaels said (framing his observation with an insider-y Hollywood reference, which is a very Al Michaels thing to do). Michaels seemed to regard Vinovich’s outsize primetime presence as mere coincidence, and maybe it was. But it wasn’t. Vinovich is the NFL’s Judge Wapner, and league executives love him for it.
Vinovich’s unspoken status as the favored child of the NFL refereeing corps is, in part, a product of the fact that he is simply good at his job. Since he returned to the field in 2012 after an extended medical leave, Vinovich has earned playoff assignments every year, including three conference championships and a Super Bowl. Postseason games are given to officials who come out on top of the league’s internal grading system, so Vinovich has been consistently excellent.
I think that, beyond the grades, the league also likes Vinovich’s style. As Wapner did, Vinovich makes the system appear to work. Nobody keeps the machinery of a football game moving quite like Vinovich—he seems obsessed, for instance, with enforcing penalties as soon as possible after a flag is thrown so play can resume with expedience. His announcements are crisp, to the point, free of affectation. “Pass interference, offense number 85, 10-yard penalty,” he said in the third quarter of last week’s New England-Miami game. He did not wield the word “OFFENSE” like Thor’s hammer. He just said it. Direct. All business. This is what the NFL wants a national primetime audience to see: The system works.
Until it doesn’t. The 2019 NFL year is young, to be sure, but Vinovich hasn’t officiated a primetime game yet this season, and that may be a result of what happened to him at the end of his 2018 postseason. Vinovich led the crew at the NFC Championship debacle that sparked this whole hilarious fad of officials swindling the Saints at every possible juncture. It was a member of Vinovich’s team who missed a blatant, potentially game-ending pass interference foul in the fourth quarter of that contest, depriving the Saints of their chance to be defeated by the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Saints fans were livid. Pundits howled. Twitter throbbed with self-righteous outrage, which never happens.
The missed call wasn’t Vinovich’s fault—monitoring for pass interference is the responsibility of other officials, and the referee’s assignment on a pass play is to keep eyes on the quarterback. But Vinovich took the heat anyway because he’s the one whose face appears on TV. After the Saints game, Vinovich’s ready-for-primetime image was tarnished. He was no longer the steady Wapner-esque voice of reasoned gridiron jurisprudence. He became a symbol of dysfunction, and the Sunday Night Football appearances have, so far, dried up. That’s show business.
There is good news for Vinovich. The Saints’ trauma will pass, the details will fade from memory, and fans will forget that Vinovich is supposed to be a villain. Because the TV-judge/referee parallel only extends so far. It may amuse me to imagine that their identifying tics make them full-blown characters in football’s grand cast, but the referees, to their benefit, are not really stars. They exist on a fringe between anonymity and fame. Yes, their moments of notoriety happen on the air of the NFL, America’s most-watched TV show, yet with time referees always manage to fade away again. Stripes make good camouflage.
“You’ve got three and a half minutes to play, and a big play, you know, you then—you settle for the field goal at times of the issue, and then the onside kick. A lot of things come into play right now with the score, what it is.”
NBC’s Sunday Night Football graphics team does not hesitate to overextend a metaphor. (Neither does Block & Tackle, as you have witnessed.) For the Week 2 Philadelphia Eagles-Atlanta Falcons contest, the SNF artists naturally could not resist exploring the possibilities of an avian theme. The most peculiar animated sequence of the evening featured a bald eagle swooping across a sky in which the clouds spelled out “FLY LIKE AN EAGLE” in barely legible letters. This was the introduction to a package about wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who plays for the team named the Eagles, so one might say that he himself is an Eagle. You see the connection.
The shot changed to reveal Jackson perched over an eagle’s nest. In this tableau, it appeared Jackson had not only taken over the nest, but he made himself at home by replacing all of the eagle’s eggs with footballs. Before long, the eagle showed up. “What on earth happened to my eggs?” the eagle said. “Don’t worry,” Jackson said, “I just need your nest for a moment, to illustrate these statistics about my ball-catching prowess. See the cloud message in the sky?” And the eagle said, “I can’t read a word of those clouds. Go away, DeSean Jackson.” So he did.
Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that evaluates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the true victor in each contest. Put simply, Block & Tackle picks are guaranteed to be correct. When a game’s outcome varies from this column’s prediction, the game is wrong.
In Week 2 NFL action, 10 games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, while six games did not, indicating that they took place in a defective reality. If you viewed one of the aberrant games, consult the nearest local Janet to reboot your timeline. (Overall season record: 21-11)
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
TENNESSEE TITANS vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL Network) (timestamped pick): The reality of Thursday Night Football appears to be permanently broken.
ATLANTA FALCONS vs. Indianapolis Colts (CBS)
Cincinnati Bengals vs. BUFFALO BILLS (CBS)
The last time we checked in on Buffalo Bills long snapper Reid Ferguson, he had concluded a long and fruitless quest for store-bought pimento cheese by endeavoring to make his own at home. Things continue to look up for Ferguson: He has now found something to watch on television.
Baltimore Ravens vs. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (CBS)
New York Jets vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (CBS)
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is out indefinitely with mononucleosis, which you’d think would be terrible news for him. But as astute Block & Tackle reader John H. notes, when Darnold showed up in a Monday Night Football video collage, the stricken QB appeared to be facing his diagnosis with defiance. Weird, vaguely unsettling defiance.
Miami Dolphins vs. DALLAS COWBOYS (Fox)
Detroit Lions vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (Fox)
Oakland Raiders vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Fox)
Denver Broncos vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (Fox)
New York Giants vs. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (Fox)
QuantumPicks forecasts a final score of 2-0 in this matchup.
Carolina Panthers vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS (Fox)
New Orleans Saints vs. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (CBS)
After each Seattle Seahawks victory, head coach Pete Carroll gathers his team in the locker room to play the game where he pretends to be a steel beam, and the players splash him with “jet fuel,” and he tries not to melt.
Houston Texans vs. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (CBS)
LOS ANGELES RAMS vs. Cleveland Browns (NBC): Soon, the NFL Narrative Gods will be forced to relent, and we no longer have to act surprised that the Browns are terrible again.
CHICAGO BEARS vs. Washington (ESPN)
If you’d like to contact me with an item for Block & Tackle, or just to say hello, you can email me: my first name, at symbol, my full name, dot com. You can also reach me via Twitter. Block & Tackle will return next week to update you on further developments in the exciting nightlife of Buffalo Bills long snapper Reid Ferguson. Until then, keep on long-snappin’.