The NFL is looking to take a page from the playbook of one of its referees.
Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino is looking to run a trial of an eighth official as early as this preseason, according to Judy Battista of NFL Media. Referee Walt Anderson implemented an eighth official for the 2013 season in the Big 12 Conference, where Anderson is the coordinator of officials.
This new position — labeled “A” for alternate in the NCAA — has responsibility for spotting the ball and watching the interior line play. This alleviates some of the duties of the umpire due to overlapping responsibilities in high-pace offensive play. This official would set in the offensive backfield on the side of the quarterback’s throwing arm, but set closer to the sideline than the referee. Since alternate has specific meaning in the NFL, the league will probably have a more descriptive name, like center judge.
The extra official would not be on the field for the 2014 regular season under any circumstances, and would probably need a second trial in the 2015 preseason. This means that the earliest regular season action of the extra official would be no earlier than 2016.
During the 2013 offseason, Anderson explained the pressing need, saying, “What we’ve got to be sure is that officiating changes along with the game to be sure that it is administered fairly for both sides of the football.”
In addition, Anderson said the eighth official helps in “covering blind spots that the evolution of the game has created, because there are only seven of us and there are 22 players spread out all over the field.”
The NFL experimented with a deep judge for the eighth official in the 2010 and 2011 preseason. That trial was a reaction to the increasing use of four wide-receiver sets on pass-heavy offenses covered by three deep officials. The deep judge has not been used since. The NFL added the seventh official in 1978, the side judge, as a reaction to the transition to pass-dominant offenses.
If the NFL does a tryout of the 8-man system this preseason, it seems that Anderson’s “A” officials would be tapped for the trial. There likely would not be a full slate of 16 or 17 of these officials, but probably only four games, as was done for the 2010 deep judge position. (The 2011 preseason had 12 games with a deep judge.)
Because there are at least five new officials and one or two officials promoted to referee this season, the officiating department will probably avoid assigning the extra official where there are new crew members.
There doesn’t appear to be any formal vote planned by the Competition Committee, and it is unclear if there will be a vote of the ownership on the trial, if it is implemented in the 2014 preseason.
Anderson explains the 8th official in a Big 12 Conference video
Image: Big 12 Conference. Table source: Pro Football Reference. Accepted penalties only, and includes penalties on special teams or after a change of possession.
How do you change a NFL rule? A rule change first has to pass muster with the Competition Committee. There are several rule proposals floated during the season as potential problems and issues arise on the field. The committee meets in Florida next week to consider those proposals, and to draw up rule changes for the owners to consider. The owners will meet later this month to vote on the proposals. Seventy-five percent of the owners need to vote in favor to change a rule.
Blocks. The competition committee will consider making several blocks illegal for 2014. The committee will consider changing or modifying the rules governing chop blocks, cut blocks downfield, roll blocks, and peel-back blocks. Committee members will also mull over whether or not to give extra protection to the quarterback when running the read-option in the pocket. An intriguing rule change will be to tighten up the hands to the face penalty. Right now the player being fouled has to have his head pinned back in a sustained way in order for the official to drop the penalty flag. The committee will study if players are using a quick shove to the face to gain an unfair advantage and if so, that action will now be illegal.
Defenseless player hits. The NFL has mandated that officials call high hits against a defenseless player. This took a hit out of the game that potentially could cause head injuries. Players compensated by hitting players lower, and those hits resulted many more leg and knee injuries. The committee will now consider making low hits against a defenseless player illegal.
Language. In light of several highly publicized incidents of foul or disrespectful language on and off the field this past season, the Competition Committee will consider penalizing players who use racially charged language on the field. If it is implemented, it will likely be done as a point of emphasis under the current “abusive language” rules.
Extra points. One of the more interesting (and in my opinion, puzzling) proposals is to drop the extra point kicks after a touchdown. The reasoning behind changing the extra point rules is, according to commissioner Roger Goodell, the extra point kick is not exciting and a very high percentage play. Extra point kicks have been around since 1883, so it will be interesting to see if the NFL will change one of its fundamental rules. Early indication is that the discussion will not result in a new rule proposal this season.
Instant replay. Two ideas under consideration by the competition committee will be to make replay centralized in NFL headquarters and to have all replay challenges initiated by the replay official up in the booth. While the committee will probably give serious consideration to replay rules, there are several obstacles standing in the way of centralized replay starting in 2014. The indication is that the change will be to have the Officiating Command Center patched in to the booth-to-field communication to monitor the process.
It remains to be seen how many of these rule changes will get to the owners, but the Competition Committee meeting always makes for interesting off-season discussion.
Competition Committee begins reviewing full agenda
The NFL Competition Committee is getting a first look at its agenda, and it already seems like two proposals will be tabled for future consideration. NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport says the committee appears to be holding off on revising the point-after-touchdown conversion attempt and the replay review system.
Rapoport says that Rich McKay, the committee chair, is considering two proposals for the PAT: one would move the spot of the snap and the other would make touchdowns 7 points without a kick, but the current two-point conversion would be a +1/−1 play (making the result of that conversion an 8 if good or 6 if it fails, just as it is now). McKay is known to use statistical analysis in rule changes, so he is most likely aware that when the goalposts were moved 10 yards in 1974, the PAT success rate plummeted to 90 percent. In 2013, PATs were converted at a record of 99.6 percent. Perhaps a snap from the 12-yard line is under consideration?
Rapoport said that an overhaul of the replay system will likely have to wait. There are logistical hurdles to revamping the system that would take more than a simple rewire-and-solder job. Although they will do some preliminary review on the Competition Committee, there are other obstacles that will likely derail a centralized replay system.
Probable agenda for the Competition Committee
Football Zebras has determined these items are also up for discussion by the Competition Committee this year:
Process of the catch. This is an annual review of the rule, but I don’t expect any changes beyond a minor tweak, if that.
Defenseless player protections and low block. This is an annual review as well.
Crown-hit rule. This was a new rule last season but it appears to have not been called, although fines have been levied for this type of hit. NFL statistics do not list any crown hit penalties, but it is not clear if there were zero called or if they are just filed under unnecessary roughness. An NFL spokeman declined to elaborate, saying the statistics for crown-hit penalties (called and uncalled) would be revealed at the owners meeting in March.
Taunting as a live-ball foul. There was discussion about taunting fouls that occur during a play could erase a touchdown, but this does not seem to have any serious consideration.
Defensive pass interference to 15-yard penalty. This routinely gets a review by the committee, although McKay said last year that it was not considered in the 2013 meetings.
Eliminating kickoffs. It will be reviewed, but no changes anytime soon.
Concussion-related changes. Some possibilities include a short-term “concussion reserve” disabled list to sit concussed players, eliminating the three-point stance, and ejections for helmet-to-helmet hits (h/t Jenny Vrentas, The MMQB)
The Competition Committee is chaired by McKay. Current members of the committee are, according to the NFL public relations department:
The shoes worn by referee Scott Green, umpire Scott Dawson and side judge Larry Rose at midfield of the Pro Bowl after they completed their final game of their careers [Michael Yanow/NFL].
League has several shoes to fill in the offseason
The Super Bowl is fast fading into the rear view mirror and we now enter what is called the “dark period” in regard to NFL officiating. According to the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association, there is to be no formal contact from the NFL to its officials from following their final game of the season and May 15 of each year. This is done since the officials are classified as part-time employees, and it affords a set time to be uninterrupted at their other jobs.
Even though there is no formal communication taking place, the NFL is making some big decisions about its officiating staff. First of all, the NFL has to hire at least five officials after a string of retirements at the end of the 2013 season. Football Zebras knows of the five who have already announced they are retiring, but there could be more officials who choose to retire as the offseason wears on. The NFL will almost certainly hire some officials who were part of the 21 who trained with crews this preseason under the advanced training program. However, two sources with knowledge of the training program indicated that some of those trainees were not considered ready for a call-up to the pros. Traditionally, the NFL interviews the finalists during February and March and the final hires happen late in March.
Officials also are required to take an annual physical exam in the offseason and send the results to NFL doctors. In the past, the physicals have caught potential problems and forced the end of an officials’ career. Dean Look was forced to retire in 2002 after his physical indicated a heart problem that required a triple-bypass. Bernie Kukar’s career was also cut short due to a failed physical.
One of the most-watched hires this season will be who the NFL hires to replace retired referee Scott Green. This past pre-season, the NFL auditioned four current officials at the referee position. The NFL doesn’t hire officials to head an NFL crew in their first season since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. This will be the first time the NFL has promoted an official to referee since Clete Blakeman donned the white hat in 2010 after Don Carey served as a referee pro tem for one season. (Carey’s one year at referee was to give Blakeman an extra year of NFL experience before becoming referee.)
So a new referee, while not as rare as a papal conclave, is a unique event that bears watching.
Once May 15 rolls around the dark period ends. Dean Blandino, the vice president of officiating, will distribute a memo introducing the new officials and a reminder that as of that date they cannot speak to the media. Included with the memo will be the crew assignments for the upcoming year, new rules and points of emphasis and a rules test that officials submit before the officials’ clinic in July.
Football Zebras will be here in the offseason to report on rule changes, announcements about NFL officiating, and any other interesting information that bears sharing. Be sure to like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @footballzebras to keep up to date with Green offseason news.
McAulay crew handles first dud Super Bowl in 10 years
Well, this year’s Super Bowl will not go down as a classic in terms of excitement, but the Seahawks’ defensive performance will be talked about for a long time. Peyton Manning’s future and legacy (rightly or wrongly) will be hot topics for the next few news cycles. Thankfully, the officiating will not be a topic to debate. There was no call that swung momentum or decided the game, but there were some things I noticed while zebra watching tonight.
1. McAulay was very relaxed at the coin toss, even though there was a gaffe.
McAulay handed the coin to Joe Namath and forgot to ask Seattle to call heads or tails - or Namath tossed the coin before getting permission from McAulay. The veteran referee quickly reacted, caught the coin, and got the captain’s choice. Everyone, including McAulay, got a nice chuckle out of it, there was no need to be embarrassed, and everyone got on with the game (video).
Referee Terry McAulay (left) was thrown a curve ball during the coin toss.
2. Speaking of coin tosses, the media was kept at bay and let the referee and captains do their job.
The Super Bowl coin toss is the most viewed football coin toss annually. The crew even goes through a coin toss dress rehearsal the day before the game. There are many layers of extra detail to the coin toss, including a special coin, special guests to toss the coin, an extra layer of tension as the teams just want to kick off and a crush of media that wants to be in on the ceremony. In the past few years, the media crush at the center of the field has gotten ridiculous (video from Super Bowl XLV). I don’t know if the NFL Referees Association requested a little relief, or if the NFL executives took the initiative, but the media kept its distance and let McAulay and the captains do their job.
3. All in all, pass interference wasn’t a factor in the game.
Side judge Dave Wyant calls a play in Super Bowl XLVIII
One big story line this past week was how the aggressive Seattle defense would fare against the Denver pass attack, and how the officials (especially field judge Scott Steenson, side judge Dave Wyant, and back judge Steve Freeman) would call defensive holding, illegal contact, and pass interference. There was one pass play late in the first half where I thought a Seahawks player got away with illegal contact or pass interference, but all in all, the officiating crew called a very good game in the secondary.
4. Line judge Tom Symonette set an early tone.
The Seahawks hit hard and then tell their opponents all about it. Early in the game, the Seahawks kicked off to the Broncos and once the receiver downed the ball in the end zone for a touchback, a Seahawks player delivered a late hit on an unsuspecting Bronco. Symonette didn’t bother scolding, warning or giving the teams a “talk to.” He brought out the flag, and helped the crew send an early message that post-whistle nonsense would not be tolerated. Honorable mention goes to Terry McAulay who warned a Seahawks player in the first half as he was starting to bark at the Broncos’ sideline. Thankfully there were not any major scraps this game and both teams mostly displayed good sportsmanship.
5. Umpire Carl Paganelli showed hustle and snuffed out potential tinderboxes.
Several times, #124 jumped between players who were pushing and shoving, jawing, or about to square off. One time, two players were wrestling on the ground after the whistle, and Paganelli jumped on the two players and separated them. He worked hard to set the ball ready for the next play, and from his position in the backfield, was able to rule a pass over the middle incomplete. Here, he is in reverse mechanics on the interception return by Seahawks linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith.
6. The officials have to be ready on the first play.
Ok, McAulay got the coin toss out of the way without major problems, everyone lined up on the right side of the field, the kicker waited until he blew the whistle, and the game got started with a routine kickoff return. Time to settle in, get a few plays under the belt, and get into the groove. Right? Wrong. The first play featured a complete breakdown, illegal motion by Peyton Manning, a bad snap into the end zone and a safety. McAulay could have been caught napping or not ready for the start of the game and looked really bad on that play. He was ready, Seattle was ready, the Broncos were not ready (video).
This game did not feature any calls that will be scorned or praised, but the seven officials who were tasked to call Super Bowl XLVIII did themselves and the game proud.
Photos: Ben Leiberman/NFL, Denver Broncos (middle photos), Ric Tapia/NFL
Follow us here for rolling coverage of the calls and rules interpretations of Super Bowl XLVIII from MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (If you see continue reading below, click it to see the entire feed.)
Despite chatter, NFL replay will remain under the hood
It has become a groundswell in the past season to have the NFL adopt a replay review system that is centralized in the league headquarters. The common contention is that the centralized replay, handled by an individual reviewer or small number of reviewers, would lend to consistency in the calls made. In the NHL, Rule 38.4 allows for reviews as to whether the puck crossed the goal line (and did so when time was in), if the puck was directed into the net by unauthorized means (off of a high stick, an official, a kick), and to make clock adjustments. While there is a video goal judge in the arena that examines all goals and no-goal calls, any reviews that are not straightforward are reviewed in the NHL War Room.
Such a system in the NFL would presumably have the replay officials confirming scoring plays and turnovers, but that any booth review or coach’s challenge would be handled at the Art McNally Officiating Command Center in Manhattan.
Despite all of the talk to revamp the replay system, there are several reasons while a wholesale change is not on the way.
1. Officiating department wants to keep the crew in charge. Under the current system, the referee makes the decision on replay reviews which keeps all decisions on every play based within the crew of seven. Senior director of officiating Al Riveron told NFL.com in October there is no reason to change. “We are extremely happy with the way it works,” Riveron said. “Our referee goes into the replay booth, and he’s 100 percent in charge of what goes on in there. We’ve very successfully been doing it that way, and I think everybody is happy that way.” This is part of the long-standing policy that the referee has sole authority from kickoff to the final second, except for emergencies, such as severe storms. He and his crew are responsible for the game without being overruled by an outside observer — even if they are wrong.
2. The commissioner even hedged on his comments. In what is widely termed the commissioner’s “state of the league” address, Roger Goodell indicated that, with centralized replay, “we believe that we might be able to achieve more consistency.” However, Goodell also stopped short of placing the command center in charge, saying, “I do believe there’s a possibility that some version of that will occur where our office can at least be involved with the decision. Maybe not make the decision, but can at least provide some input that would be helpful to the officials on the field.”
3. Back-and-forth relay is complicated. Replay reviews in the NFL are inherently more complicated than whether a black disc crossed a painted line. The league does not want a reprise of the replay fiasco of 1985 to 1991, when an eighth official (the “replay judge”) intervened to make the replay call. Because the referee was not involved in the review process, the announcement given by the referee was often described poorly and incorrectly. As a result, the replay judge had to follow up the call with a written decision to the television crew, but it left spectators at the game in the dark. The resulting dissatisfaction with the announced calls was one of the factors that lead to the moratorium on replay through the 1990s.
4. Serious consideration has not begun. Back in October, the NFL sent a representative of the officiating department to observe the NHL operation at their Toronto headquarters. This was seen as a sign of imminent change, but Reid works in a technology capacity with the department, according to an officiating source. Furthermore, Reid is a recent hire, joining the NFL from the Big 10 conference in April. So it appears that his visit was exploratory on the nuts-and-bolts at the most, such as the NHL’s fiber-optic communication system vs. the NFL’s satellite-and-telephone links.
5. Replay has been Blandino’s pet project. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has always sold the decentralized method of replay review. Literally, sold, as he left the league to start his own company, Under the Hood, in 2009 while remaining a consultant to the NFL. Under the Hood trained replay officials from the NFL and a handful of college conferences. Blandino believes this system works because he was part of the system from the very beginning: he was involved in reestablishment of the replay system when the owners reinstated it in 1999.
6. Replay logjams possible. Picture a Sunday afternoon with 10 games on at once (which actually did occur early this season), and it is easy to envision the nightmare scenario or simultaneous replays coming into the command center for review. Sure, there can be a small staff of reviewers on hand to take care of the overflow, but if consistency is the goal, more people involved can dilute that consistency.
7. Judgment calls are inconsistent by nature. We found this year with the Football Zebras Roundtable that even the people in charge of grading the officials can disagree. Former officiating supervisors Jim Daopoulos and Larry Upson, on occasion, disagreed with the official’s call and with each other. Their former boss, Mike Pereira, also disagreed on occasion. During the review process, supervisors take debatable calls to a group meeting in the middle of the week. Typically, these include many of the replay calls. This shows that there can still be enough variation to not close the gap of consistency.
8. Rate of return. In order to justify a revamp in the replay procedure, there must be demonstrable evidence for the Competition Committee that a change is needed. The chair of the committee, Rich McKay, often cites statistics for rule changes, such as the change in the kickoff spot and the modified sudden-death rule. The Competition Committee is going to examine the number of replays conducted this season and the number of calls deemed incorrect. While it won’t be 100 percent accuracy, the number is likely more than the accuracy of plays that are not reviewed, which is historically between 97 and 98 percent.
9. Replay officials just signed collective bargaining agreement. If there ever was a natural time to revamp the replay system, it would have been when the 34 replay officials and video assistants were in a contract negotiation. With an extended contract in hand, the league will keep the current replay employees on the payroll for the foreseeable future.
10. Likely, any change will allow some advisory input only. Blandino and Riveron already monitor every replay situation live from the officiating command center. There already is an open communication line between every replay booth and the command center. Presently, the command center is not connected with the field-to-booth communication, as far as we know.
It would not be a stretch to patch the the command center into the replay equipment so that a member of the senior staff can advise on the final decision. This may have actually already occurred during a playoff game, as Blandino was in Cincinnati for the wild card game. An officiating source indicated to us that Blandino was observing the game from inside the replay booth and was allegedly prepared to intervene if necessary.
And, if I could add an 11th reason, personally, I have a stake in this. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King traded tweets with me on a possible centralized replay system. So we have a little friendly wager going:
Hmmm. I’ll owe you a beer if I’m wrong RT @SI_PeterKing Might want to wager you.
I enjoy historic aspects of NFL officiating and as we get ready to zebra watch in Super Bowl XLVIII here are some interesting nuggets regarding officiating in the Super Bowl.
Field judge Scott Steenson sets the record for most years between return trips. Steenson worked Super Bowl XXXI, and makes his return 17 years later. The previous record was held by Don Hakes at 14 years.
Terry McAulay’s third Super Bowl assignment as a referee ties him with Bob McElwee, Pat Haggerty, Norm Schachter, and Jim Tunney with the second-most assignments as a referee. (Gerry Austin, and Scott Green have worked three Super Bowls, but at least one of those assignments was at a position other than referee.). Jerry Markbreit has worked the most Super Bowls as a referee, with four.
Carl Paganelli is on a Super Bowl roll. Paganelli has been assigned four out of the last 10 Super Bowls as an umpire. Believe it or not, that is not the best Super Bowl streak. That streak is owned by the late Bob Beeks. The line judge was assigned five out of ten Super Bowls between 1980 and 1990. Paganelli joins Ron Botchan, Al Conway, and Art Demmas as the only umpires assigned to four Super Bowls. (In Botchan’s case, five.)
Five officials hold the record for officiating five Super Bowls: the aforementioned Beeks and Botchan, line judge Jack Fette, field judge Al Jury, and field judge Tom Kelleher. (Kelleher was listed as back judge, but the position names were actually switched at that time.) Will any current member of the officiating roster join or surpass the “fab five?” Well, both Paganelli and McAulay are under age 55, and they both have a good chance, in my opinion.
You can look here for a complete list of Super Bowl officials.
Photo: Carl Paganelli (center) and Terry McAulay (right) have a combined seven Super Bowl Assignments between them. (San Francisco 49ers photo)
Terry McAulay will lead a crew of excellent and distinguished officials in this year’s Super Bowl. This will be his third Super Bowl (XXXIX, XLIII), umpire Carl Paganelli’s fourth (XXXIX, XLI, XLVI), and field judge Scott Steenson’s second (XXXI). Even though it will be the first Super Bowl for the other four officials, their experience in the league ranges from 10 to 23 years; this is a very strong crew.
For an official to leave sportwriters and sportsjocks clamoring for any controversial call is the ultimate compliment. However, the one incident that is often recalled was not McAulay’s downfall; rather, it helped forge him as the unassuming paragon of poise and perfection.
The game was in Cleveland on December 16, 2001, between the Browns and the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars. McAulay was in his first year in the referee position, and Paganelli and Steenson were on his crew that day. The Browns were trailing 15-10 late in the fourth quarter, but were attempting a game-winning drive. Browns quarterback Tim Couch attempted a fourth-down pass to Quincy Morgan, and it was ruled complete on the field for a first down. The Browns hurried up to the line and Couch quickly snapped and spiked the ball. After the spike, the McAulay got on the microphone and said that the replay official had signaled for a review through his electronic pager prior to the snap of the spike play (video).
McAulay reviewed the play and announced that the Morgan catch was incomplete and that the Jaguars would take over on downs. Browns fans went into an uproar and began throwing plastic bottles onto the field in protest. Due to the unsafe conditions, McAulay decided to end the game with 48 seconds left on the clock. (Commissioner Paul Tagliabue ordered the game be completed — which wound up being a couple of kneel-down plays in a near-empty stadium.)
This incident — dubbed “Bottlegate” — received significant press at the time and now seems to be making a comeback with the appointment of McAulay to Super Bowl XLVIII. However, you can’t really blame McAulay, much less define his career by Bottlegate, and here’s why:
Replay buzzed prior to the snap. It does not matter how long it takes the officials to react and stop play, the fact is that since replay buzzed prior to the play where Couch spiked the ball, that play never took place. Consider what happens when the play clock runs out. If there is a delay of game foul, the play will never count in that circumstance, even if the ball is snapped before the back judge can whistle the play dead.
Couch’s pass was incomplete. When he reviewed the replay, McAulay correctly reversed the call on the field to an incomplete pass. This ruling was unpopular, but it was correct nonetheless.
There was little he could have changed. While he could have taken more control over the chaos that ensued – and if this happened today he would likely have never lost control in the first place – nothing was going to erase the frustrations of the Browns fans that day. Cleveland sports have been so close to success for so long, only to see each opportunity fade away and the frustration levied that day reflected that. The only way that the situation could truly have been squelched would have been if the pass had been ruled incomplete on the field.
McAulay’s record since Bottlegate is above reproach. In the last twelve seasons, McAulay has had playoff assignments in nine seasons, working a conference championship game or Super Bowl in each of those seasons. That means in nine of the last twelve seasons, McAulay has rated at or near the very top among all referees.
McAulay is one of the best game managers in the NFL. He is always in control of his crew and the game, ensuring that everything moves along quickly and efficiently. His games frequently last under three hours, and he is unwavering in moving on the course of action he believes is right in all circumstances.
McAulay, a native of Louisiana, was interviewed by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2009 and he said of Bottlegate, “Absolutely it was something no one should ever have to go through, but I wouldn’t be the guy I am today if I didn’t learn from it. … So Cleveland, obviously I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m not sure I’d take it back. Because if it hadn’t happened, would I have just worked my second Super Bowl? Maybe not”.
Behind the Football Stripes is our partner forum to promote the analysis of officiating — including the NFL, NCAA, high school, and other sports. Views expressed in the discussion forum are, of course, those of the poster and do not imply endorsement by Football Zebras.