There were several tongues wagging in Week 7 when an official advised a player he was in illegal formation. Many football fans learned the term “preventative officiating,” and the debate began whether or not preventative officiating was actually coaching. Well, preventative officiating happens every game and at every level and at every sport. It helps fans enjoy the game without a foul-fest.
I define preventative officiating as, “an official who advises, warns and encourages players to play within the rules to create a fair and enjoyable game for the teams and fans.”
Preventative officiating starts in the pregame. If the officiating crew observes a player wearing an illegal uniform or illegal equipment, they recommend the player and the coach to correct the equipment or uniform. Should the official wait until kickoff and then throw the flag on the player for illegal equipment? Officials want to take care of the problem instead of throwing a flag.
How else do officials use preventative officiating? If the backs are getting a little twitchy before the snap, the referee warns the backs to hold still or they risk an illegal motion penalty. If the guard is starting to get his hands outside the frame of the defender, but there is no unfair advantage yet, the umpire will warn the guard to “keep your hands in.” If a defender is lining up in the neutral zone before the snap, the wing officials will warn the player to back up. The wide receiver will come out and declare he wants to be on the line of scrimmage. The wing official will either say, “You’re good” or “Move up half a step.” (See NFL line judge Tim Podraza do this at 1:19 of this video.) If a defender is getting a little too excited and his gesticulations start to inflame the offense, an official might say, “Take it back to the huddle. I know you’re excited, but don’t taunt. Celebrate with your teammates.” Officials will also work with the head coach to make sure the sideline is clear and safe before they start dropping flags (See field judge Barry Anderson and line judge Jeff Bergman do this at the 1:00 mark of this video). Should the official be mum in these situations, wait until the players cross the line and just throw the flag? That’s one way to ruin a game.
NFL officials are masters in using preventative officiating. In the book, The Third Team, retired referee Bernie Kukar spoke about how he’d use preventative officiating. He said he’d always remind the quarterback to make sure he was out of the pocket before throwing the ball away, to avoid an intentional grounding penalty. If the ball is near goal line, Kukar said he warned the offensive line to keep their hands in and avoid a holding penalty as the team tried to punch the ball in for a touchdown. Is that coaching a team or reminding them to play within the rules to create a fair and enjoyable game? I’d submit to you that Kukar’s actions were excellent preventative officiating techniques.
An official, especially the referee and umpire, will work to create a presence and encourage good play. I am an umpire on my high school crew. I engage in chatter with the teams after every play. It goes something like this: “All right. It’s over, it’s over, it’s over! Roll off the pile. Push off the ground. Good work, gentlemen. We’re good, we’re good. Everyone all right? Second down!” What does this chatter do? It helps the players know I’m there, I’m watching them, and I’m ready to help them. I’m not there waiting like a cop in a speed trap to catch them doing something wrong and flag them. This is also preventative officiating. (Listen to umpire Darrell Jenkins at work at the conclusion of this play.)
If you ever have heard an NFL referee mic’d up, you’d hear preventative officiating on every down (referee Gene Steratore, video).
There are exceptions to preventative officiating. Officials will flag players without warning for safety fouls (facemask, chop block, leg whip, or block below the waist), late hits and other unnecessary roughness fouls. Also, while some slight violations may receive a warning, unmistakable fouls will still be called when they are seen.
So, the next time you complain that the officials are throwing too many flags or they are being too picky, know that they’ve talked to, encouraged and exhorted players to follow the rules. Their preventative officiating techniques actually work to reduce the yellow laundry on the field. Officials at all levels do not like throwing flags!