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NFL officials have to work harder in blowouts, poorly played games

The Monday Night Football game between the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans was almost universally panned as a boring and poorly played game.  Walt Coleman’s crew was, by far, the best and most efficient of the teams on the field that night.  While the fans could head for the exits or viewers could grab the remote and change the channel, Coleman’s crew had to dig even deeper to keep the game from degenerating into a travesty.

Side judge Rick Patterson signals touchdown on a run by Titans quarterback Jake Locker during Monday's lackluster game with the Jets. When a game lacks excitement, officials must keep their focus and concentration at 100%.
Side judge Rick Patterson signals touchdown on a run by Titans quarterback Jake Locker during Monday’s lackluster game with the Jets. When a game lacks excitement, officials must keep their focus and concentration at 100%.

Believe it or not, it is easier for officials to work a nail-biting, dramatic, every-call-is-life-or-death game as opposed to a contest where the outcome is decided well before the clock hits zero.  When the game is a blowout, the players tend relax, lose concentration, and start going through the motions.  Some players, sensing that their opponents and the officials have let their guard down try to get in some free shots.  If the officials lose concentration, that is when they’ll miss a chop block, late hit, leg whip, or blow to the head.  If the officials miss a call like that, the rough play gets ramped up, the fuse is lit, and sometimes that tinderbox explodes leaving the officials burned on the field and in the supervisor’s report to the league office.

So, what do the officials have to do to maintain concentration when no one else cares?  The best thing the officials can do is get back to basics.  During the pre-snap routine, each official has to concentrate and go through his checklist: count the players, signal the count, find the player to key off of, state the key out loud, state down and distance out loud, and prepare for anything.  After the play is over, the officials have to be very vocal.  They must talk to the players, encourage players who seem frustrated to keep playing and appeal to their sense of team and pride.  The official must not appear bored, frustrated in the game’s quality, or exude a “get this thing over with” attitude.

There is an even more challenging game for officials to work and it is the type of game Coleman’s crew worked Monday night; it is a close game where both teams are trying very hard, but the quality of play is poor.  Nothing chops up a game’s flow more than multiple turn overs, incomplete passes, time outs, and fouls do to sloppy and undisciplined play.  During games like that, the officials have to dig even deeper to avoid emulating the bad, disorganized, and poor play.  The officials again must go back to the same techniques they use in a blow out game.  With the poor play comes extreme frustration by the players and coaches.  The officials have to fight off becoming frustrated at the quality of play and having that frustration develop into a bad attitude.

What if an official is trying all of those techniques and he is still having a hard time concentrating on the game?  Well, he can remind himself that up on the press box is a supervisor writing out a report on him and his crew mates.  The calls he is making in this “dog” of a game count just as much towards getting a Super Bowl assignment — or being terminated from the NFL officials’ roster.  Hopefully the official doesn’t have to resort to that negative reinforcement to get into the game.

Not every game can be an overtime thriller.  When the game is bad or a blowout, the officials must work extra hard to be the best of the three teams on the field.

Image: Donn Jones/Tennessee Titans

Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"

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2 thoughts on “NFL officials have to work harder in blowouts, poorly played games

  1. As someone who occasionally referees a different sport, I find this article really good to read. Especially the part about resetting after each play and projecting the right attitude. Thanks.

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