by Mike Kurtz
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. Last week, we covered scrimmage plays, where the offense attempts to matriculate the ball and end up on the other side of their opponent's goal line. Today we'll progress through the three stages of special teams: the doleful punt, the hopeful field-goal attempt, and the triumphant kickoff. Most of the officiating philosophies in play are to ensure complete coverage on a class of plays that have the potential to not only go all the way downfield, but reverse course and boomerang right back. This is one area where crew experience and preparation pay dividends; special teams plays are hectic and unpredictable, and the crew has no real opportunity to communicate during the action. When all the officials are on the same page and comfortable with their crewmates, everyone knows how to be in best position to view the play. On a play as rapidly-evolving as a punt, position is everything.
That isn't to say there isn't plenty of pre-snap communication between the officials. For instance, on every play there are a pair of officials counting the offense and another counting the defense. Since it would be unwise to have the officials shouting over the cadence, each pair communicates via hand signals to ensure both officials have the same count. The signs vary from crew to crew, but generally there are motions to indicate substitution (and number of substituted players), and signals for 10, 11, and 12 players on the field.
There is, however, one exception where the officials rely on a verbal signal after the post-snap chaos ensues. When a scrimmage kick is away, the referee will often shout that the ball is free. This serves as a warning to the players that the kicker is protected from contact, as well as a cue for the deep wings, who may be focused on a possible penalty or have their vision obscured by a player, to begin moving downfield and mark their gunners. Once the referee's signal is given, the rest of the play should move like clockwork.
PUNT (SCRIMMAGE KICK)
When the team in possession is lined up in a punt formation, the referee and the umpire are again in the offensive backfield. They'll be watching the snap, the punter, and line play. The line judge and head linesman are again straddling the line of scrimmage, but only until the ball has passed the line of scrimmage. Once the ball has been kicked, the line judge and head linesman release and follow the second wave of players from the kicking team downfield. The side judge and field judge follow the kicking team's gunners downfield, and the back judge is responsible for observing the returner, including any fair catch signals, muffs, or fair catch infractions. If you've watched the officials closely, you may have seen the back judge toss a blue or white beanbag onto the field when the punt is fielded. This bag marks the spot where possession changed. The enforcement of some post-kick penalties, as well as an improper fair catch signal by another player on the receiving team, depend on this spot. Bags are generally used to mark changes or loss of possession. If there is a scrum on the field and you see bags go flying, that means one of the officials saw a loose ball and things are about to get interesting.
After the recovery, the officiating team has, in essence, shifted downfield and flipped responsibilities. Provided there is no blocking infraction along the line of scrimmage, the umpire and the referee transition to the deep men on the chance that there is a long return. The back judge, who usually is manning the deep zone, is now concerned with blocking infractions and "cleaning up" penalties behind the return. This scheme also helps ensure that the entire return is covered by the officials, since NFL return men and gunners are clearly much faster than the men who make up the officiating corps. Still, on long returns off short punts in the maroon zone, it isn't uncommon to see a referee or umpire chugging downfield in an attempt to stay ahead of a play, which is unfortunate for the official but somewhat amusing for the audience at home.
FIELD-GOAL ATTEMPT (SCRIMMAGE KICK)
The second type of scrimmage kick is used for both field goals and extra-point attempts. Two officials (the back judge and field judge) line up directly underneath the goalposts in order to judge whether the kick succeeded. The referee, as usual, lines up in the offensive backfield to observe the snap, hold, and kick. He'll be on the look out for any roughing or running into the kicker penalties as well. The head linesman and the line judge remain at the line of scrimmage to discern whether the kick has passed the line of scrimmage. Finally, the umpire and side judge line up five to ten yards behind the line of scrimmage on the defensive side, watching for holding and formation infractions. This is another point where official/player interaction is important. Since it's an infraction for a defensive linemen to line up directly over a long snapper, he'll want to line up as close to the snapper as possible. If a lineman strays too close, he'll pull a warning from the side judge or umpire and usually mosey off to the side. The long snapper is one of the most vulnerable players on the field, and his safety is one of the top priorities on scrimmage kicks.
Most of the action is (obviously) with the back judge and field judge, so once the kick is free, five of the seven officials are basically "cleaning up" after the play. The key exception is extremely long field goals. During those, the umpire and side judge will spread out and move downfield in case there is a return. The back judge and field judge position themselves behind their respective uprights and wait for the kick to arrive, from a vantage where they can look up at a sharp angle and get a clear shot at the upright and their half of the crossbar. Whichever official is on the side of the kick yells the result to his counterpart, and in unison they either signal an unsuccessful attempt or take a few steps forward and signal a success. If the kick is short and fielded in-bounds, the back judge and field judge will move up and spread out to cover the return. Although they will obviously be behind the play, there is always the possibility of the returner reversing course or a boneheaded penalty behind the play.
The most common type of free kick is the kickoff, although free kicks following safeties use the same formation. The back judge hands the ball to the kicker or punter, waits to ensure that it is placed legally, then retreats to the sideline at the free kick line where he can observe the kick. The side judge lines up opposite the back judge on the free kick line, where both will watch for offsides. The umpire and the field judge line up on opposite sidelines along the receiving team's restraining line (10 yards beyond the free kick line; usually the kicking team's 45-yard-line) to watch for offsides and illegal touching by the kicking team. A free kick cannot be touched by the kicking team until it has passed the restraining line. The referee waits at the goal line or in the end zone to keep an eye on the kick returners and to judge touchbacks and fair catches. The head linesman and line judge are usually positioned between the goal line and the 10-yard-line, depending on the strength of the kicker and the situation.
Once the ball is airborne and past the kicking team's restraining line, the back judge, side judge, umpire, and field judge release from their original positions and follow the action downfield. The back judge and side judge are moving in toward the center of the field, while the umpire and field judge move in along the sidelines. Unless there is a long return, these four officials are responsible for "cleaning up" after the play, which on a free kick largely means looking for illegal blocks and unsportsmanlike behavior. Downfield, the referee watches the returner catch the ball and calls a touchback if the returner lets the ball go through or kneels the return in the end zone. He'll leave a close call of a touchback to the head linesman or line judge though, since those officials have a better view of the plane of the goal line. Once the return begins, all three follow the action upfield, with the head linesman and line judge moving along the sidelines and looking for infractions around the ball while the referee looks for infractions behind the play.
Kickoffs are another area where a crew benefits from situational awareness, since the set-up for onside kicks is slightly different than a standard kickoff. If the crew believes the kicking team is in an obvious onsides situation or they line up in an onsides formation, the line judge and head linesman move up to 10 yards behind the receiving team's restraining line (normally the receiving team's 45-yard line), leaving the referee to cover basically half the field by himself. If the kick is onsides, then all six officials will actually stay rooted in place until the play has resolved, to keep out of their crewmates' lines of sight. This makes an onside set-up somewhat risky, because if a team kicks deep when a crew isn't expecting it, the line judge and head linesman won't have a first step toward the receiving team's goal line in mind until the kick s already well downfield. If caught off-guard, those two officials have to haul butt down the sideline in order to get into position, while trying their best to keep an eye on the coverage team as it streaks downfield. Lining up to best cover an onside kick is a significant risk on the part of the referee, so it is rare to see this set-up in any but the most obvious onsides situations.
Most teams have a football equivalent of a ballboy to run across the field and pick up the tee, so that Devin Hester highlight clip doesn't come to an end with a trip and the band playing Yakety Sax. If the team does not provide anyone to do so, the back judge is responsible for clearing the tee from the field, and the umpire, who is responsible for equipment, is responsible for yelling at the head coach for not having someone on staff to pick up the tee.
Now that we understand the mechanics of officiating, we can move on to practical applications of the most common and most commonly misunderstood rules we as fans are likely to run into this season. Among others, I'll break down the six types of holding, give out a cheat sheet on the two classes of illegal quarterback contact, and explain what happens when the ball hits a dog on the field of play!