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Surprise: The enemy of officiating



Officials try to prepare for everything

Former baseball umpire Jim Evans used to run an umpire’s school. One of his biggest lessons to his students was “an umpire’s biggest enemy is surprise.” That mantra can be adopted for all officials in all sports.

As tongues were wagging at the end of the Seattle-Detroit game on Monday night, many were wondering how the official could miss an illegal bat (video). The reason the official missed the illegal bat was simple in my opinion — he was surprised. First of all, this wasn’t a regular swing-your-arm-and-hit-the-ball. The defender ran toward the ball and made sure the ball collided with his open hand — still an intentional act, but not overt. I’m sure the official asked himself “did I just see what I thought I saw?” If there is any doubt, officials are taught to keep the flag in their pocket — call what you know, not what you think. The play on Monday night, unfortunately, bit the back judge.

Anderson crew (Kansas City Chiefs)

Anderson crew (Kansas City Chiefs)

So, how do officials defend against surprise? It starts with a good pre-game. Each week, the officials gather and go over mechanics, rules, film and situations. Many times officials will throw out “what if” scenarios. For instance, “On that play the foul happened before change of possession, but what would we have enforced if the foul happened after change of possession?” Or, “What if the Seattle player had been in the field of play and batted the ball out the back of the end zone? How would we have enforced a potential penalty?” Good referees always keep their crews on their toes by tossing out different scenarios and getting the crew focused on any eventuality.

Once the officials hit the field and talk to the coaches, they will simply ask the coach if they plan on any trick plays or formations. If the coach has something tricky planned for the day, he will most likely tell the officials. If the team has spent all week practicing it, they don’t want a surprised official to ruin their trick play. The coach might tell the officials, “We quick kick out of shotgun.” Or, “We have a special fake punt where we snap it to the up-back.”

Once the game starts, officials are almost always running potential scenarios through their mind. “Third and five, they could run out of the spread formation or pass it. Remember illegal contact goes away once the quarterback rolls out.” Or, “They’re going for it on fourth and five from midfield? QB is deep in shotgun formation. Watch for a quick kick. But they’ve flooded my side with receivers. The QB could try to pass it instead of kick it. Be ready for a kick or a pass.” Or, “We’re under two minutes to go so the forward fumble rule is in effect. Be sure to drop the bean bag on a potential fumble and be ready to rule on any illegal kicking or batting.” Or, “We’re inside the five, and they’ve gotten nothing up the middle. I’m on the strong side so watch for a pass play or a sweep play that ends right at the pylon.”

Many times during a timeout, the officials will get together two or three at a time (or just talk to each other on their radios) and remind each other about the game situation. “Offense has no time-outs so be ready for lots of passes to the sidelines. If he’s driven backwards out-of-bounds give him forward progress in-bounds and wind the clock.” Or, “If they try multiple laterals, and there is one forward and it hits the ground, it is an incomplete pass so blow it dead.”

Still, after all of those safeguards are in place, sometimes something happens that an official has never seen or hasn’t seen since he officiated Pop Warner football 25 years ago. When that happens, it is important for the official to slow down, process what happened, and apply the proper rules. If he needs help, he needs to call over his partner closest to the play or even the referee and hash it out.

Surprise is fun and interesting for players and fans — not so much for the officials.

As the crews take to the field today, I’m sure they are heightened alert for the unusual.

Photo: Walt Anderson’s crew make sure they are on the same page and are ready for any surprise.

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?"