Something odd struck a few officiating observers during the surprise onside kickoff to start overtime in the Rams-Seahawks game. Beyond the fact that an onside kick was attempted and beyond the difficulty in enforcing the proper penalties, something was clearly not adding up.
After the possession and enforcement were set, I called a former official about the decision that was made on the kickoff for clarification. In the discussion, I said, “it looks like they reversed their decision because someone got in their headset and told them.” This official, who had yet to see the play, said “I’m sure someone guided them. How do you get from [the kickoff being kicked] ‘into the ground’ to ‘didn’t touch the ground’ by discussing it?”
Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira then advanced the same suspicion on Monday as a guest on The Herd with Colin Cowherd
They’re not going to admit this, but somebody got into Jeff Triplette’s ear from the press box and said, “Jeff, that ball wasn’t kicked into the ground.” Then he changed it based on that information. That information is coming from the replay official who sees the play, even though it’s not reviewable.
Then, former NFL officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos also came to the same conclusion in the Inside Slant column by ESPN.com reporter Kevin Seifert:
I don’t think there is any question in my mind that guys do that. There are situations when if you’re watching the game with the background of having been an official, you think they have to be getting some information from the press box or somewhere
The NFL told Seifert that any communication from the replay official in these situations would be for purely administrative purposes.
Is this a problem?
Last season, Pereira blasted the SEC officiating under the headline “SEC has lost almost all credibility and integrity in officiating.” Pereira noted some SEC officials were receiving administrative help through the wireless headsets on multiple occasions, for example:
Something happened in the Alabama-Tennessee game Saturday night that has me irritated. Well, I actually passed irritated two weeks ago when I was hot about this happening in the Auburn-Mississippi State game. I’ve moved on to really pissed now.
The “this” I’m referring to is the abuse of the communications system used by the SEC.
Two weeks ago, the officials at the Auburn-Mississippi State game were noticeably talking to someone, somewhere over their communications system at Davis Wade Stadium, who gave them information to pick up a flag for intentional grounding. It was an absolute farce.
However, in Monday’s interview about the potential for off-field assistance in the NFL, Pereira felt the pace of the game made it acceptable. He told Cowerd, “It’s become so much more complicated that this communication system is being used to get things right, which I’m actually OK with.”
The wireless headsets worn by the NFL officials debuted in the 2014 season, but communication with other members of the officiating department existed before then.
In case of a replay communication malfunction, an officiating department employee, called the “Teal Shirt” for the identifiable uniform, can alert the crew to prevent a snap from occurring. (The sideline is also populated by other individuals identified by their colorful apparel. For instance, the league’s operating procedures refer to the television network coordinator and the commercial coordinator as “Green Hat” and “Orange Sleeves.” That’s a discussion for another day.) Now that the wireless system is in place, the Teal Shirt is just a fail-safe redundancy, but the Teal Shirt always has had the ability to relay information from the replay booth even if there was no replay underway.
When the league locked out the officials during the 2012 labor dispute, an alternate official on the replacement crew was assigned to each game, even though the alternate is not part of the regular season protocol. Those alternates were on a headset to either an officiating supervisor or observer, as they are with the regular crews in the postseason. Because of the league’s maladroit plan to use substitutes who received a crash course in NFL-specific rules, the supervisor became an interventionist eighth official to correct spots, particularly with penalties (and even they didn’t get it right).
When the union officials returned to the field, the supervisor-to-field link was removed until the playoffs. Even then, the game supervisor was empowered, and unofficially encouraged, to shut down a snap to correct a spot. In a 2012 Wild Card game, referee Mike Carey had a multilayer enforcement on an intentional grounding call which required outside assistance:
When the teams lined up [after the penalty], the Ravens took a timeout, with the ball spotted at the Colts 48 yard line (9 yards from the previous spot). During the timeout, Carey spoke with alternate referee John Parry, who is wearing a headset, communicating with game supervisor Johnny Grier and observer Phil Luckett. After the timeout, Carey announced the correct spot on the foul was the 41-yard line, and the ball was moved back.
We railed on this when it happened in the replacement era, so it is only fair to point it out in the playoffs. While the Ravens saved this crew’s bacon on the timeout, the Colts nearly were able to gain seven yards from the officials.
We also noted a similar situation in the 2013 Divisional Playoff game between the Chargers and Broncos in our live blog. Referee Clete Blakeman had to sort out two fouls and was given incorrect information as to the spot from the official that threw the flag:
There also was the issue of the spot: they spotted the ball at the SD 49, which is where the receiver landed, but the foul occurred at the DEN 45. An alternate official went to the SD 45, because the supervisor was telling them to adjust the spot. Then, as they advance to the SD 45, the alternate starts pointing back to the DEN 45, and moves to that yard line. The spot of the foul is not reviewable, but the game supervisor and the alternate officials serve as sort of a shadow crew and can jump in at any time they see an incorrect spot.
Now that the officials have wireless headsets, they are able to communicate with each other on matters of game administration. Replay reviews are also conducted through the wireless, so the replay official and the replay assistant have access to the field. During a wild card game last year, a 12-on-the-field penalty was called by Ed Hochuli’s crew. Replay official Tom Sifferman confirmed it for Hochuli, during a part of the game where it is not reviewable without a coach’s challenge. This became public knowledge when Hochuli accidentally keyed his public-address microphone instead of the headset microphone, and used Sifferman’s nickname, when he announced to all, “I got the word from Jungle Boy that was a good call.”
Now that the Officiating Command Center is part of the replay process, the officiating vice president Dean Blandino and senior supervisor Al Riveron also are linked into the field. The trained spotters monitoring players exhibiting concussion symptoms can call medical timeouts through the headsets, too. Who else?
Even the chain crew has been told that they are authorized to jump in if need be. “We have been told by most crews to ‘shut it down’ if there appears to be something wrong — down, flag not seen, etc.,” said one NFL sideline worker. “In the meetings before the game [the officials] have hammered into us to get it right. We are part of the crew and to not be shy about speaking up. Now, in real life, I would be scared to shut a play down.”
But herein lies the problem with getting help outside of the crew of seven. It has the potential to be inconsistently applied. Some referees have been known over the years to be unapproachable by crew members regarding administrative matters, even though a rookie official should always point out a misapplication of the rules to the most senior official. Is the replay official pointing out potential flaws where the rules expressly state nonreviewable elements, such as the “proper down”? In the Rams-Seahawks onside kick last week, if an outside observation shaped the validity of the fair-catch call, why didn’t that influencer help the crew in assessing a foul for contact after a fair catch on the same play?
Without a clear policy, a similar situation in 14 different stadiums on any given Sunday may have different outcomes.