Reporting from Foxborough, Mass.
Training camp is essential for all 32 NFL teams in their preparation for a new season. The same can be said for the officiating crews — working at team’s training camps helps the league’s officials get their feet wet and practice their mechanics and the new rules before the first week of the preseason. Referee Pete Morelli and his crew are on site at Gillette Stadium this week to oversee joint practices between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New England Patriots. A full crew of seven took the field — a relatively uncommon occurrence at training camp, as all teams will get a default group of four officials, but a few teams request a full crew for practices or scrimmages.
Morelli’s crew is there not only to enforce the new rules and points of emphasis, but also to teach the teams as well. They will stay to work the first preseason game between the two teams on Thursday.
When the officials first took the field, their duties were similar to any pregame during the season. Members of the crew were seen getting their stretches in and introducing themselves to the two head coaches, then monitoring some conditioning. From there, Morelli and umpire Bryan Neale explained some of the new rules to members of the coaching staff, while down judge Steve Stelljes and line judge Tim Podraza were covering line play during offensive drills early on in the day. Field judge Brad Rogers and side judge Boris Cheek always seemed to be side by side, as the rookie field judge Rogers seemed to be shadowing Cheek and heeding some of his advice, only separating once the crews started working together as a unit.
About halfway through the practice, the two teams began to face each other in combined drills. The backfield and line of scrimmage officials worked together covering run plays while the deep wing officials monitored middle-length and deep passes. It wasn’t until the squads practiced special teams, mainly kickoffs, when the full crew worked together as a whole. The teams then switched into full 11-on-11 drills, consistently switching between starters and backups. Working together, the crew treated these drills like a real game situation, including penalizing the teams for a variety of committed fouls. Following an offensive pass interference call on New England wide receiver Julian Edelman by Cheek, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick could be heard yelling for his offensive team to eliminate the costly penalties. He even asked Rogers and back judge Greg Steed to watch the line of scrimmage on field goal plays instead of standing under the goalposts since the other officials were busy working on the opposite end of the field with Jacksonville’s kicking unit.
In a press conference, Belichick explained the importance of having full crews on the field during training camp and the joint practices.
Yeah, that’s certainly helpful. They see it the way they see it. That’s all that really matters. It doesn’t matter what we think. It’s how they view it. It gives us a good opportunity to have the game officiated impartially by them, not by a coach or somebody else, but just the way it’s really going to be. We had several situations come up [Monday] that we can learn from and plays that were called tight that we’ve got to be ready for them to be called tight and plays that maybe were called a little looser that maybe that’s going to be the definition of it. We’ll try to understand the rules properly so that we can play within them and continue to be one of the least penalized teams in the league.
As always, fans may not be on the same side as the officials, except for maybe one fan standing behind me at the practice, who nudged his friend and said “it’s cool that they have refs here.” Yes, sir, it is quite cool. Entering the first week of the preseason, we should expect and hope that all of the crews are now prepared and in midseason form as the 2017 NFL season opens up.
Photo: Eric J. Adler/New England Patriots