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Concentration is key to avoiding wrong-way flags and other errors



Detroit Lions fans were aghast and pundits hooted at Jeff Triplette’s crew during Week 14 as umpire Shawn Smith called an illegal hands to the face foul. The foul was there, but Smith called it on the wrong team. The Bears were guilty of the infraction, but Smith called it on the Lions.

How could something like that happen?

Shawn Smith (Detroit Lions)

The embarrassing error highlights the need for officials to concentrate the entire play. The NFL game moves at a speed that doesn’t translate to TV. Heck, even fans sitting 10 rows up in the stands can’t appreciate the speed of the game. That’s why officiating requires an almost super human level of concentration.

In the book The Third Team, official Jeff Bergman describes officiating a play as taking a series of 8×10 glossy photos. His mind then processes those glossy photos and he makes the call. Many other officials describe slowing the game down to make the call. Jerry Markbreit described it as his mind as a movie projector and slowing the play down in his brain. 

When calling a foul, the official has to see the infraction, see if it had an impact on the play, and if they throw the flag, get the number of the guilty party, and note the status of the ball (live, dead, loose, etc.).

Sometimes things happen to make one of those 8×10 snapshots turn out blurry. Sometimes the play happens so fast the official is screened for an instant. The official flags the right team  and foul but he might miss the number. It is quite embarrassing to report the foul to the coach and not have the number. Even if the coach knows the call is right, the official just gave the coach ammunition for the rest of the game.

I really feel for Smith. He thought he had the right information, but something broke down while he read the play, and the wrong team lost 10 yards, plus it wiped out the play.

Smith and the rest of Triplette’s crew is off this week on a scheduled bye. The best course for him and other officials who have made a mistake is learn from the experience and get back on the field and call a great game.


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?"