George Hayward had every reason to believe he was finally on his way to a Super Bowl.
It was no secret to either the veteran NFL head linesman or his peers that he had earned good grades from his supervisors during the regular season. There were enough information leaks from the league office for Hayward to expect that he was about to enjoy his profession’s ultimate reward.
“If you’ve had an absolutely great year, and you’ve paid your dues like George has -- 12 years in the league, solid reputation -- you become confident of your standing,” said Dale Orem, a retired 19-year NFL official.
Hayward was never told by his superiors that he was going, but all the indicators were there.
“You make friends with these guys when you’re around them all year, and if one of them is a friend, he may help you along with some information,” Orem said. “He might say something like, ‘You’ve had a great season, this could be your year.’ It’s a nod and a wink.”
But instead of achieving the lucrative assignment -- Super Bowl officials are paid $20,000 -- Hayward’s penciled-in assignment has been revoked.
The reason, according to a high-placed officiating source: Hayward’s participation with the crew that called the Jan. 5 playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants.
The game ended with a controversial call, and the league took the unusual step one day later of announcing that the crew incorrectly handled the critical final play of San Francisco’s 39-38 victory.
And so, when the Super Bowl XXXVII crew is announced by the NFL next week, Hayward won’t be on it. Working the game will be referee Bill Carollo, umpire Ed Coukart, head linesman Dale Williams, line judge Mark Steinkerchner, back judge Don Carey, field judge Tom Sifferman and side judge Rick Patterson.
“People in our business are not very happy about the way this played out, this knee-jerk reaction that has penalized guys who’ve worked their [rear ends] off all year, only to see one bad call cost ‘em 20,000 bucks,” the officiating source said.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello would not confirm the assignments, saying the Super Bowl officiating crew would not be made public until next week. “The rest of it,” he added, “is speculation.”
Carollo is executive director of the National Football League’s Referees’ Assn. It is the 14th season for both him and Coukart, and each will be participating in his second Super Bowl. It will be the first Super Bowl for Steinkerchner, Carey, Sifferman and Patterson.
In an NFL postseason marred by several questionable calls, the crew, with 72 years of league experience, is charged with keeping the Super Bowl from becoming the latest game overwhelmed by controversy
In addition to the 49er-Giant ending, officials stumbled through key calls in the Atlanta-Green Bay wild-card game and last week’s Pittsburgh-Tennessee divisional round game.
Although the Super Bowl crew has many admirers within the profession, the selection process has inspired criticism from a segment of the fraternity.
Reached at his Missouri home, Hayward said league rules bar him from talking to the media until after the Super Bowl.
Yet, a handful of officials said that leaks, hints and access to their own grades can provide sharp insight at the end of the regular season as to who is best positioned to win the Super Bowl jobs.
Armed with that knowledge, the officiating source said Williams, who has worked two previous Super Bowls, and Steinkerchner were elevated to the crew as replacements for Hayward and Jeff Bergman.
Hayward and two other officials threw penalty flags against the Giants for an illegal man downfield on the final play of the Jan. 5 game. Mike Pereira, the NFL’s director of officials, announced Jan. 6 that the officials erred by failing to call pass interference against Chike Okeafor of the 49ers. Had the officials made that call, the offsetting penalties would have given Giant kicker Matt Bryant a second chance to attempt a 41-yard field goal that had been botched.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue labeled the officials’ mistake the worst “failing” in his 13 years at the league’s helm.
Based on a grading procedure that measures officials’ percentage of accuracy on each of their calls, Hayward ranked as the No. 2 head linesman behind Williams before the 49er-Giant game. But Hayward was considered Super Bowl-bound because Williams had previously worked two Super Bowls, and, when applicable, the NFL will give the honor to a deserving veteran who grades strongly, the officiating source said.
Because of Hayward’s pending assignment, Bergman was positioned to become Super Bowl line judge. Bergman rated as the No. 2 line judge after the regular season behind Steinkerchner, but he had worked a Super Bowl before and the league, according to the source, wanted one of the officials at the line of scrimmage to have Super Bowl experience.
But just as so many well-informed officials learned of Hayward’s previous good standing in the NFL offices before the 49er-Giant game, the officiating source said they also learned of the Tagliabue-mandated postgame consequences: No one in the 49er-Giant crew would go to San Diego. Aiello denies Tagliabue became involved, calling Super Bowl assignment decisions “an internal matter.”
With Hayward demoted behind the veteran Williams, Bergman was replaced by Super Bowl rookie Steinkerchner, the officiating source said.
Despite some resentment about the selection process, the Super Bowl will feature the top-ranked head linesman and line judge. By accounting for playoff performance, the system, in fact, worked.
“These guys should be picked on the basis of what they did during the whole year,” said Red Cashion, a retired veteran NFL referee. “I don’t care what their age is, or what their tenure is, I just want the best guys out there.”
Hayward and Bergman haven’t worked since the wild-card games.
None of the Super Bowl officials will be working this weekend’s AFC and NFC championship games.
Those assignments went to the next rung down of other highly rated officials.
The point that burns some officials is that it takes only one highly publicized mistake to erase a season of correct calls.
“We like to think it’s a game, but the NFL is big business and there are times, like this, when they make decisions because they don’t want to rock the boat,” said Fred Wyant, a 27-year NFL official.
“They’re saying, ‘We can’t put you in the Super Bowl. It will come under great criticism, and if you make a mistake there, we’re going to be asked why in the world would we put a guy in the Super Bowl when we’ve already seen the mistake he had already made.’ ”