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Penalty enforcement is an entire-crew effort



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NFL looks for ‘efficient, accurate penalty enforcement’

I’ve joked about it before: when Terry McAulay is the referee of a game, when there is a penalty flag the cameras had better find him quickly, because chances are he could be finished with his penalty announcement before the camera gets him in focus.   That’s not just a McAulay quirk.   The NFL expects its officials to enforce the penalty and get back to the game as soon as possible.

The NFL mechanics have changed in the last 20 to 30 years.   If you are a fan of “the old days” you might remember a typical penalty flag situation: the calling official reports the foul to the referee, the referee gives a preliminary signal, beckons the captains, explains the options, walks off the penalty himself, then makes his final signal and announcement (5:04 mark in video below).

Not anymore.

During this past offseason I talked to Al Riveron, senior director of officials for the NFL.   “Efficient and accurate penalty enforcement is of the utmost importance,” Riveron said.   He added, “We don’t want a series of prolonged stops.   The goal is to expedite the penalty enforcement as quickly as possible and get back to the game.”

The former, more deliberate, penalty enforcement mechanics are a thing of the past.   The referee doesn’t make a preliminary signal or beckon the captains.   “The calling official makes the preliminary signal,” Riveron explains.   “The official who threw the flag signals the foul and points to the offending team.   The wing officials then report the foul to the head coaches.   The coach (of the offended team) then makes the decision whether or accept or decline the penalty,” he added.

Riveron says there is a logical explanation of why the referee no longer consults with the captains in regard to penalty enforcement.   “When we used to give the captains the penalty options, the first thing they did was to look to the sidelines for instructions.   So, now we just go straight to the coach.”   Riveron adds that if a sideline official doesn’t see the preliminary signal or if he doesn’t hear the referee’s announcement, they will go in and ask the what the foul is, and then   return to the sideline and give the coach the proper information.

Once the final decision is made, the umpire marches off the penalty (if accepted), the head linesman marches off the penalty with the umpire to make sure the enforcement is correct, and the line judge holds the enforcement spot if the umpire and head linesman have to return and walk it off again.   Riveron says the field judge, side judge, and back judge don’t get to take a rest during a penalty enforcement.   “I want the deep officials to observe the penalty enforcement and make sure the foul is being walked off properly.   I tell them, ‘You are the referees down field. Make sure the crew gets it right,'” he said.

Riveron says when the choice of obvious, the officials don’t even consult with the coaches.   “If a foul on the offense will wipe out a first down run, or if there is defensive pass interference on an incomplete pass, the referee doesn’t even consult with the coach, since it is obvious the coach will want the penalty.   The referee will just instruct the umpire to walk off the penalty and he’ll make the announcement,” he explained.

Starting this season, all on-field officials will be wired for official-to-official communications during the game.   Riveron says this technology will further speed up the penalty enforcement process.

The coach faces tough decisions during kicking plays or those “tweener” plays.   Does the coach want to decline the penalty for 3rd-and-6, or accept the penalty for 2nd-and-11?   Does the coach want his opponents to kick the ball again or take the result of the play and go on offense?   Riveron said, “We allow a coach to change his mind.   If the coach does change his mind the referee will say something like, ‘Correction.   Penalty declined,   it’s fourth down.'”

The NFL wants all of its officials to know penalty enforcement down cold. “That includes the replay official.   All seven officials on the field have a job to do and it is incumbent on the entire crew to get penalty enforcement right,” Riveron said.   He also added that even the most junior official is expected to know penalty enforcements and the NFL wants its officials to question the referee and the rest of the crew if he thinks something is wrong. “I’d rather have an extra five-second delay for an official to double check, than for that official speak up at halftime or the end of the game and give information that could have prevented a mistake.   The crew can no longer say, ‘We’ll let the referee handle it.'”

So, as the season starts and you see quick and efficient penalty enforcements, know that the entire officiating crew is working hard to make sure the foul is enforced and the players can get back to playing football.

Image: Ben Liebenberg/NFL

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?"