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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.


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Mark Schultz
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?"

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7 thoughts on “Concentration is key to avoiding wrong-way flags and other errors

  1. This “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.).”

    If this is during a live ball, not only does an official have to do all of this, but after all this he/she also has to continue officiating the play, then clean-up after the ball is dead, and then report his/her foul to their white hat.

  2. No…just no.

    You can’t just blow this off as “one picture got blurry”. He saw the foul, how does he not remember WHICH TEAM committed the foul?

    That is not getting a number wrong. In the Steelers/Bills game a defense holding was called and announced as “either #25 or 28”. Fair enough

    But the wrong TEAM?

    That is an inexcusable mistake.

    I’ll add that the whole “did it affect the play” line seems a bit disingenuous when you have calls week that are away from the ball and meant nothing getting called and holds or DPI right where the ball is not getting called to “let ’em play”.

    This was a silly explanation for the mistake.

  3. Ironically Shawn Smith was right. Number 72 of the Lions likely committed an illegal block on a Bears defender. This is what Smith saw though it doesn’t excuse the infraction committed by the Bears defender. The penalties should have offset allowing the down to be replayed. I think Matthew Stafford got in Shawn Smith’s way.

  4. There is NO excuse for calling a foul on the wrong team or having multiple fouls and not reporting them correctly, at any level.

  5. Shawn Smith was a MAC referee for years, moved to a position he had NEVER been in before (SJ) when he was hired by the Big Ten (he freely admits his demographic played a big part in that decision), and now as a U in the NFL where he also has not worked in the past. I know Shawn, and many others who know him also, and he is a GREAT guy, and good a Referee, but was not ready for the NFL (only THREE years removed from the MAC).

  6. Jerome, unfortunately the one who suffers in the end is Shawn and his reputation takes a hit. Moving an official too soon is a huge mistake and one that is being made over and over in today’s world of being PC in officiating, i.e. the first female official. I don’t know Shawn and I’m sure he is a good person or he would not have been hired into either the BIG or NFL but this is basic officiating 101. When you take your flag out of your pants, you need to know what the foul was, who committed the foul and the penalty enforcement. That is taught to every rookie officials at ever level. This is the type of mistake made at the lower levels and not at the highest. Hoping Shawn never makes this type of mistake again and he is able to move on from it. Talk is he maybe in line for a ‘white hat’.

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