NFL fans are constantly debating the best players of all time, yet they neglect discussions of the greatest NFL referees to ever dress in stripes and officiate games.
Of course, this isn’t surprising because most fans look at refs as the enemy. However, like it or not, referees are an integral part of the game and their efforts should be recognized.
If you look at the average NFL referee salary, you’ll see how important they are. Most NFL refs make about $200,000 per year, which isn’t bad for 15-20 Sundays’ worth of work. Even though we only tend to focus on what they get wrong, the greatest NFL referees get a lot right and rarely make egregious errors.
Greatest NFL Referees
Since they are so overlooked and unfairly villainized at times, we thought it’d be nice to look back at some of the best NFL referees ever. After all, they deserve credit for what they do and deserve their time in the spotlight. While everyone listed has no doubt made a controversial call at some point, here is our list of the greatest NFL referees in league history.
10. Jerome Boger
Boger is one of the most experienced and recognizable refs in the NFL today. He joined the league as an official in 2004 and needed just two years until he became the third African American head ref in league history.
He’s one of the few refs to play the game at a high level, starting at quarterback for four years at Morehouse College.
Boger also seems to have a good understanding of the rules and gives clear explanations on calls. With less than a decade of experience, he got his first Super Bowl in 2013, which was when the lights went out in the Superdome during Super Bowl XLVII between the Ravens and 49ers.
9. Clete Blakeman
While he’s one of the younger refs in the NFL, Blakeman has proven himself to be among the best.
As someone who played under legendary coach Tom Osborne at Nebraska (albeit as a backup quarterback), nobody should be surprised that Blakeman has a great grasp of the rules and how the game is played.
It took him just two years to go from field judge to head ref. Since becoming a head referee, Blakeman has been assigned at least one playoff game in almost every year, including Super Bowl 50. The best part is that Blakeman should have many years of being one of the NFL’s best refs ahead of him.
8. Pete Morelli
Morelli spent over two decades in the NFL, starting out in 1997 and getting promoted to head referee in 2003, a position he held until his retirement in 2018.
There were a few hiccups along the way, including a call the NFL had to admit was wrong the day after the game. That’s probably why Morelli’s only Super Bowl came as a field judge and not the head referee. But he still put in a lot of good years as a ref and limited the number of significant mistakes, which is more than can be said of most refs.
7. Al Riveron
Riveron loses points because he wasn’t in the league as long as all of the refs listed ahead of him. But in his nine seasons in the league, Riveron was a trailblazer and one of the best in the NFL.
For starters, he was the first Hispanic referee in the league. He also worked tirelessly to prepare for games, both keeping himself in good shape and watching video to improve his performance.
After all, if players do it, why shouldn’t the officials? It was exactly that type of commitment that helped make Riveron one of the most consistent and reliable refs in the NFL from 2004 to 2012, even if his time in the league was short.
6. Walt Anderson
Steady and consistent are two of the best words one can use to describe a referee, and they fit Anderson perfectly.
He rarely made an egregious call during his tenure from 1996 to 2019, including more than 15 years as a head ref. Year after year, the NFL trusted him to officiate playoff games, which is among the highest of compliments the league can give to its officials.
5. Tony Corrente
Outside of yelling a slight obscenity that was heard on television during a game in 2012, it’s hard to find any major gaffes in Corrente’s time in the NFL, which dates back to 1995.
He’s also one of the toughest people on the field every week, including the players. Corrente only missed a few weeks of action in 2011 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He’s come back from that diagnosis and continues to be one of the most reliable refs in the league. Corrente has been in charge of plenty of important playoff games, including Super Bowl XLI.
4. Gene Steratore
Steratore was such a good official that he now works as a rules analyst for CBS during games.
Most fans also recognize him as a former college basketball official.
That’s part of what made Steratore such a great referee. He always worked hard and knew how to call the game by the book.
His worst moment came on the controversial Calvin Johnson play in 2010, although one could argue that he got it right at the time, even though the rule was later changed. It’s no wonder that it only took three years for Steratore to be promoted from field judge to head ref, which says a lot about what a comment official he was.
3. Terry McAulay
Since retiring as an NFL referee, McAulay has worked as a rules analyst for NBC, which means that he brings with him a ton of credibility.
There was one incident known as Bottlegate that took place in 2001 early in McAulay’s career that got out of hand. But that one game is more or less the extent of his controversial moments.
He bounced back from that ugly incident in Cleveland and went on to become one of the best refs in the league. He remains the only head referee to officiate a Super Bowl despite having less than five years of experience. He’s also on a shortlist of refs to officiate at least three Super Bowls. In total, McAulay was involved with 17 playoff games during his two decades in the league, which speaks to the faith that the NFL put in him.
2. Mike Carey
As a former college football player, few referees could identify with players as well as Carey, and it showed during his career.
At the same time, he was tough and held players accountable, not afraid to eject players when they deserved it. Naturally, that led to some controversial moments on the field, but it didn’t stop NFL head coaches from naming him one of the best refs in the league on multiple occasions.
Carey grew to become one of the most respected officials in the league and has the distinction of being the first African American to take charge of a Super Bowl. His only Super Bowl was Super Bowl XLII when he decided against blowing the play dead on Eli Manning’s famous pass to David Tyree that enabled the Giants to win.
1. Ed Hochuli
While he retired in 2017, Hochuli was one of the best in the business for over a quarter-century.
He only made a few noteworthy mistakes during his long tenure in the NFL and tended to own up to his mistakes when he did, which can’t be said of every official.
As a lawyer, Hochuli was great with his words and one of the best referees in NFL history at explaining complicated rules and situations. He also had the distinction of being the ref for two Super Bowls and more than a handful of conference championship games, leaving his mark on the game in a largely positive way.