Football Zebras
MechanicsMost officials don’t watch the ball during a play

Most officials don’t watch the ball during a play

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If you want to watch, buy a ticket.

— back judge Stan Javie to rookie official Jerry Bergman Sr., in 1966.

 

You might be surprised how little time NFL officials spend watching the ball during a play. When the offense snaps the ball, where do non-officials’ eyes go? The camera, announcers and most fans follow the ball. But, for almost every official on the field, they cannot watch the ball.

Bergman learned that lesson in his first preseason game. According to a story he told in the book, The Third Team, Bergman says he saw the Bears returner Gayle Sayers break off a beautiful kickoff return for a touchdown. As he watched Sayers work his magic, he said he missed two fouls that would have called the touchdown back. Javie’s one-sentence rebuke to Bergman serves as a mantra for all football officials. 

Who watches what?

Referee. For the referee on a pass play, they must stay with the quarterback, who has extra protections. They watch initial line play, but when the defense pressures the quarterback, the referee’s eyes focus on the passer until well after the pass is gone. Many times, the referee doesn’t know the result of the play. He can guess from the crowd reaction, or even the quarterback’s reaction as he looks downfield, but woe to the referee who looks downfield. In 1986, referee Jerry Markbreit didn’t watch the ball and he was able to see the Packers’ Charles Martin deliver a flagrant hit on Bears’ quarterback Jim McMahon (video). If Markbreit was watching the result of the pass, he’d have missed one of the most unsportsmanlike moments of the 1980s.

Umpire. Whether in the offensive backfield or his traditional position, the last thing the umpire needs to watch during a running play is who gets the handoff. After the snap, the umpire needs to read the offensive line to see if they are run or pass blocking. The blockers will eventually take him to the ball. The umpire (and the referee on a running play) watch the blocking until the ball carrier is threatened. If the runner bounces the carry to the outside, the umpire and referee continue to watch line blocking and clean up behind the play. The wing officials then pick up the ball carrier and mark forward progress.

Down judge, line judge. The officials who watch the ball carrier most of the time are the line judge and down judge. The “short wings” are responsible for forward progress no matter if it is a one or 90 yard gain. But, if the play goes to the other sideline, the wing official cannot spectate. He or she must clean up behind the play to make sure nothing untoward occurs.

Field judge, side judge, back judge. For the deep judges, they watch the ball about 10 percent of the time on a play. If the receivers run a pass pattern, the deep judges cannot look in the backfield to see where the quarterback is looking to throw. The second they sneak a peek in the backfield, they miss the illegal contact, defensive hold or receiver pushing off. On run plays, the deep judges key on the lead blocks to make sure there is no holding or blocking in the back. If the receiver or runner breaks free the deep judges will run to the goal line and will judge if the ball breaks the plane.

Kicking plays. During free or scrimmage kicks, the worst thing to watch is the ball in flight. The ball can’t hurt anyone sailing through the air. But, there are 21 players blocking the heck out of each other and seven officials need to keep their eyes on the field — not the air. The players’ movement takes them to the ball. The only exception is on field goals and extra point kicks. Then, of course, the field judge and back judge watch the flight of the ball, but the five other officials never watch the kick split the uprights. A punt that goes out of bounds in the air only has the referee lining up the deep official to spot the ball.

Sideline plays. On the tight sideline catches, there are two officials calling the play, but only one official watching the ball. The official who is looking at the receiver’s back watches to see if the receiver’s feet are in or out-of-bounds. The official is looking at the receiver’s front watches to see if the receiver controls the ball and completes the catch. On long runs, to the end zone, the wing officials watch runner’s feet and any action at the pylon, while the back judge watches to see if the ball breaks the plane. If the wing officials watch the ball, they’ll miss the runner’s feet stepping out-of-bounds.

It takes a lot of discipline, experience, and snaps for new officials to break the habit of ball watching. They are no longer fans, but officials. 

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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