Any one of them can either do or not do something that saves the crew or kills the crew — either one.
— former NFL referee Red Cashion in The Third Team by Richard Lister
There was a great deal of interest generated in Week 1 when Randall Cobb returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown for the Packers, getting them back into the game against the 49ers (video). The touchdown was initially wiped out on a block in the back call, but the officials picked up the flag and allowed the play to stand. How do officials approach their partners and get them to change a call that they think is a mistake?
If an official thinks another official threw his flag in error, he lets the play continue, and once the ball is dead he approaches the calling official. The calling official tells his partners what he has. He’ll then ask his crewmates what they saw — knowing that if his partners are questioning his call they have a very good reason to do so. Once the calling official has the information from his partners it is up to him to either pick up the flag or let the call stand.
An official has to have a great deal of confidence (some call it ego) to make the tough call, but he also has to have enough confidence to set his ego aside and allow a partner to question him and possibly convince him to pick up the flag. This mechanic is also used for when a member of the crew thinks the down is wrong, there is an incorrect penalty enforcement, or a rule is being misapplied.
An exception to this protocol is on non-foul calls such as catch/no catch. For instance, if a head linesman has a catch but the umpire clearly sees the ball trapped, the umpire will come in immediately, signal incomplete, and sell the call.
It can be intimidating for an official to come in and question his partner, friend, or mentor. But former NFL line judge and referee Bob McElwee says it is vital for all officials to take part and “save the crew.” In The Third Team, McElwee says:
Don’t come to me — don’t you ever come to me after the game or at halftime and say, “You know, I had a good look at it.” You come now, when it happens. If it takes some balls and you’re wrong, I’ll take that. But you come now, because with seven guys I think you have a good chance [to get the call right] if something’s wrong.”
Many NCAA and high school crews have also adopted this mechanic. It is just one more way officials strive to call the perfect game.