20 Aug 2012
by Mike Kurtz
The Tuck Rule. The Football Move. Maintaining possession while going to the ground. Every NFL fan can reel off a spate of controversial or unpopular catchphrases that have flown straight from the microphone of a referee standing at midfield into our national consciousness. Football is unique among sports in that it is entirely controlled by the officials, but at the same time is not at the discretion of the officials. This leaves viewers (and sportswriters!) in the difficult position of interpreting rules they have not read and evaluating the performance of officials without any guidance on the mechanics of officiating. The fact that we are currently stuck with replacement officials who themselvs may not have the best grasp of the rules just confuses things further.
In a series of articles before the 2012 season begins, FO will be reviewing the mechanics employed by officiating crews and launch a basic primer on some of the oft-confused and more arcane rules. Once the season begins, I'll be answering questions and breaking down controversial calls in our Extra Points blog whenever we run into something worth talking about. If you have any specific officiating questions, feel free to send them to the mailbag and they'll get sent along to me.
Let's get started with the location of all the officials during play. Knowing where the officials are will help us understand what the officials' angles on the play are so we know what the officials can see and what they cannot. Unsurprisingly, their views are quite different from the overhead views the cameras bring us.
An NFL officiating crew consists of seven officials with assigned positions: the referee (R), umpire (U), line judge (L), head linesman (H), field judge (F), side judge (S), and back judge (B). With the exception of the umpire, the officials line up in roughly the same spot relative to the ball on each play, depending on the type of play, and are generally responsible for enforcing the rules within their zone. The crew is led by the referee, who officially penalizes the offending team and is responsible for replay reviews. All other officials are considered equal under the referee and generally have the final word over action that happens in their zones when there is a dispute between two or more officials. If there is a "first among equals," it is the umpire due to a few of the umpire's game-management responsibilities (principally ball placement) and the constant interaction he has with the referee.
The formations the officials employ are based on what "posture" the teams are in to give at least one official a clear shot at the action.
A scrimmage play is any play from scrimmage in which the team in possession isn't kicking. The referee lines up roughly five yards behind the quarterback and off to the side so he can get a good look at the snap. The umpire lines up more to the side and a little closer to the line of scrimmage than the referee, also on the offensive side, because the NFL has decided it doesn't want him to die. This changes after the two-minute warning of either half or the team in possession is within five yards of the end zone, during which the umpire lines up 2-5 yards behind the middle linebacker because extra eyes on the backfield in these tense situations are worth a few snapped necks.
The head linesman is easily recognizable because he has the unenviable task of running the chain gang, who hold the official 10-yard measurement and the down marker -- situated just behind the sideline on the opposite side of the stadium from the press box. The line judge positions himself directly opposite the head linesman perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, with a separate set of chains, for player and coach reference, that mirror the head linesman's. The field judge and the side judge then line up on the sidelines opposite each other past the first-down line. The back judge is deep in the secondary, usually 20-25 yards behind the linebackers, near the center of the field, waiting for the highlight reel play in which he welcomes the ball carrier into the endzone with arms in the air.
Before the snap, there is actually a surprising amount of interaction between the players and the officials. If you watch wide receivers closely pre-snap, on almost every down you can see them turn their heads to the nearest sideline, sometimes briefly pointing forward or backward. These motions are used by the receivers to communicate to the official that they intend to be on or off the line of scrimmage, which matters because of illegal formation penalties. Often, the head linesman or line judge, from their set position straddling the line of scrimmage, will hold a hand out to give the receiver a better plane to judge where scrimmage is. If a receiver is a back (off the line of scrimmage), the official will extend his arm back toward the backfield as a signal to his counterpart that there is a back on his side of the field, which has the added effect of informing the receiver that he is lined up in the backfield. The extended hands, combined with a quick count of the number of backs in the tackle box and a little arithmetic, tell the wings how many players are on the line of scrimmage and therefore whether a formation is legal.
After the snap, The line judge and head linesman make sure the snap is clean, check the tackle for blocking or holding violations, then key on the offensive player closest to the sideline, while roaming between the line of scrimmage and the first-down line in order to provide the spot for forward progress. The field judge and side judge fill a similar role in the defensive secondary, keeping an eye on the defensive backs and receivers for holding or interference. If you are looking for the official spot, always look at the leading foot of the closest wing official (HL/LJ/SJ/FJ), since that is the plane on which the umpire will spot the ball. The umpire and referee are responsible for most of the action along the line of scrimmage and down the center of the field around the line of scrimmage, including holding or blocking infractions along the interior of the line, and the back judge is generally responsible for anything deep.
The basic formation for a scrimmage play inside the red zone (but outside the five-yard line) is identical to the standard scrimmage play even if the responsibilities of all officials other than the referee have changed. The back judge is now responsible for a small area near himself and all calls that involve the line at the back of the end zone. The field judge and side judge have primary responsibility for the goal line and the sideline inside the five-yard line.
Normally, the side judge and field judge are essential but unglamorous positions; sure, they set a spot downfield, but it's the referee that gets to do all the fancy hand waving. In the red zone, the field judge and side judge run the show, where they can streak toward the ball from the sideline with arms outstretched to set off celebrations or make dramatic incomplete signals in the end zone to set off the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Since the field judge and side judge are glued to the goal line, the short wings (head linesman and line judge) often have a slightly larger range for marking the spot if the line of scrimmage is between the 10- and 20-yard lines or so. If a play is very close, the deep wings may move off the goal line, but mechanics in this grey area are a matter of preference for each individual crew. The umpire often moves back further into the offensive backfield in the red zone to catch any trick plays or turnovers that start moving the opposite direction, while the referee stays in his usual position to keep an eye on the quarterback and blocking in the quarterback's immediate vicinity.
Much like in a regular scrimmage play, the players' actions have a significant effect on how the officials approach the play. The back judge lining up on the strong side of the offensive formation is one example, but any good officiating crew takes the team, the situation, and the formation into account when preparing for the play. Most officials make it a point of knowing the strategic tendencies of both teams, their favorite plays, and the habits of the star players who will be involved in the lion's share of downs. On top of that, the short wings, referee and umpire use the offensive line to determine whether a play is a run or a pass, and switch responsibilities on the fly if a lineman pulls. Between preparation and visual cues, the crew is able to surmise in a general sense where the play is going and ensure all the action is covered. This is critically important in the red zone, where the action is extremely fast and a few steps out of position can result in a bad call.
This formation is similar to a red zone scrimmage play, with the key difference that the umpire is positioned just behind the goal line and the back judge in the center of the end line rather than climbing into the stands to get to his normal 20-25 yards downfield. At the snap, the line judge and head linesman release from the line of scrimmage and move immediately to the goal line to judge any possible touchdown or successful two-point try. If a play begins to go south for the offense, the wing responsible for that side of the field will move immediately to the goal line and then walk back toward the ball's plane to mark an accurate spot. The main concern is an immediate score, so the line judge and head linesman getting to the goal line immediately is their primary concern. The last thing the NFL and that crew want is a close touchdown called into question because the wings were late in getting to their position.
The field judge, back judge, and side judge are responsible for their portions of the end line and any receptions in their immediate area. The umpire's usual duty of clearing a pile is on display on goal-line plays because so many of them turn into scrums. It's important to note that the umpire will rarely call the touchdown (although it depends on the individual official), even if the ball is clearly in the end zone when it is secured. Instead, the head linesman or line judge will generally make the call to avoid unfortunate situations in which a knee hit the ground on the way in and the umpire couldn't see the dead ball through a mass of players.
Since the crew is so compressed in goal-line situations, the officials have a few unique concerns after the ball is snapped. The most worrisome is shielding; an overzealous umpire can move too far forward and block the view of the head linesman or line judge. A reverse or end-around can cause a short wing to move in toward the field without realizing the play is coming right at him. The solution to this problem is for all officials except the umpire to stand back off the line and as still as possible, a strategy simple to envision but difficult to execute. This is the main benefit of having crews of officials who have worked together for years, and a potential trap for the replacement crews the NFL will likely open the season with. When the broadcast is showing the replay of a questionable call (or you are looking it over with Game Rewind's handy new all-22 film), take a few seconds to note where each official is. When the crew members aren't on the same page, someone is usually out of position, and officials who are out of position start making guesses and assumptions about the action. We all know what assumptions do.
Now that you know where the officials are and what they are keying in on during each play, the process of officiating becomes an organic part of the game. In our next piece, I'll diagram the formations for the three types of kicking plays commonly on display: scrimmage punts, scrimmage tries and free kicks. Feel free to leave questions in the discussion thread below; the more fans know about how the officials operate, the better position we are in to enjoy the game.
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