2016 rule changes
Among the list of new rules passed this offseason, two of them stood out from the others: penalties for timeouts a team could not take and the use of replay for administrative corrections.
First, on the issue of consecutive or supernumerary timeouts, we predicted here in November, “Look for this to show up on the Competition Committee’s agenda in the offseason.” It did, after some high profile errors with timeout administration occurred last season. Since it will, no doubt, be mentioned in the comments section, one was called by first-year line judge Sarah Thomas, when a fourth timeout was granted erroneously by her. However, it also can happen to a veteran, as umpire Undrey Wash, in his 16th season, granted a consecutive timeout in error as well.
With numerous and uncharacteristic breakdowns on some basic administrative items last season, there was a clamor to “do something.” The erroneous timeouts, though unfortunate occurrences, were not fouls on the teams calling timeout. It essentially was a reset and restart. The owners approved a new rule that would make this a delay of game penalty, but the troubling aspect is that a timeout granted by the official’s error is a penalty; a timeout that is properly ignored by the official is not a penalty. (There is an exception where the defense is penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct when an unavailable timeout is attempted when a kicker is about to kick a field goal or extra point.) Thus, identical situations in two different stadiums would be inconsistently administered if an official in one game has a brain fart and blows a whistle, while the other is properly handled.
While a team that got an erroneous timeout did get an unintended advantage prior to the new rule, which definitely is a problem, the resulting inequity in enforcement swings the pendulum in the other direction.
Also, the officiating department took an unusual step last season of implementing a midseason procedure that would allow the officiating command center in New York — namely, senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino and senior supervisor Al Riveron — to assist on-field officials with administrative matters. While this was new to the general public, it actually had been used quietly and frequently before. This unwritten rule of being able to assist officials through the wireless headsets has now been hardwired into the rulebook.
The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating department at the League office may consult with the on-field officials to provide information on the correct application of playing rules, including appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, proper down, and status of the game clock.
While this is supportable, this can add confusion to an already confusing situation. When Pete Morelli’s crew was sorting out the correct down in a game last season, the delay was exacerbated already by two irate coaches at field level. When the situation had been largely sorted out, either Blandino or Riveron had jumped in to assist, lengthening the delay as Morelli appeared to be talking alone while on his wireless headset. The formerly unwritten rule in practice is not for the referee to seek assistance, but that the replay official or command center staff are permitted to intervene.
The rule then went a bit further, in that the replay rules now make the following game administrative items reviewable:
- penalty enforcement
- proper down
- spot of a foul
- status of the game clock.
The clock-status item is naturally an extension of the missed running clock during a stoppage on a Monday night game last season. Pac-12 referee Mike Mothershed was operating the clock for the Steelers-Chargers game at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium when, for unknown reasons, 18 second bled off the clock and was then stopped. The clock operator does not have access to the referees’ communication system, but can use an internal phone extension to contact the replay booth to alert there is a problem. Mothershed also could have reset the clock to the previous stop time (which can be in the clock’s memory and should be logged down on paper), or, failing that, set the clock to zeros to signal an issue to the field. The command center, having used the intercom in an unwritten capacity, either failed to recognize the error or chose to not intervene. Either way, the phone-a-friend lifeline did nothing to save the crew, and Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations, imposed a one-game suspension on the side judge for not detecting Mothershed’s error.
These game administration items can muddy an already confusing situation. If the crew applies a penalty, but inadvertently uses the wrong 5-yard stripe as a reference for the foul spot, it typically gets sorted out by another official sometime before the next snap. This can happen, for instance, when a pass interference foul occurs earlier in a pass route. In such a case, I am totally in favor of the replay official shutting things down and fixing the spot without formally initiating a replay. Now, we’ve inserted an aggrieved coach into the mixture, one who maybe is overzealous with the challenge flag. If the challenge flag for penalty enforcement comes out, the crew may already be engaged in fixing the spot. If so, the coach should be able to pick up the challenge flag, but the coach on the opposite sideline would inevitably protest. Now, a procedure which has built-in checks and will most likely be sorted out in due course, now has both sidelines in an uproar and the fans’ discontent towards officiating becomes bolded, italicized, and underlined. Or, on Twitter, IN ALL CAPS!!!1~!
There are also things that, upon examining the casebook, the replay rule will not fix. The number of a down cannot be corrected if a legal snap has occurred after the error. While the status of the clock is reviewable, refining the time on the clock through replay is largely not permitted. When an erroneous forward-progress call allowed the clock to expire last year, the same play this year is still not reviewable. The clock may be fixed to correct a timekeeper error or very limited situations around the expiration of the clock.
Replay is a tool to correct an obvious error. In this case, the new rule is like hammering in a bent nail. Rather than use the claw-end to fix the problem, the rules now pound away at that nail and will have Blandino patching it up with spackle during the week.