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Making the impossible call



Nothing compares to the speed of a NFL game. While I’ve never been on the field for one, I worked on the chain gang at a Division I NCAA game one level down from the pros. The speed at that level was dizzying. I can only imagine how fast it is on the field. So, how in the world do NFL officials call those sideline catches and those bang-bang plays in real-time?

Hall of Fame umpire pioneers groundbreaking philosophy

The skill the Super Bowl LI crew learned began around 50-years ago with National League umpire Doug Harvey. Back then, officials, especially baseball umpires were taught to make an instantaneous call. Any hesitation showed weakness. So many times, the umpire would make an out or safe call on the first hunch that entered their mind.

Until Harvey decided to “read, pause and react.”

Harvey decided to pause just a beat or two before making the call. That extra quarter to half second allowed him time to run the play again in his head and confirm what he saw. His philosophy made for more right calls and almost entirely cut out looking silly by calling a running out while the ball dribbles out of the fielder’s glove.

So what does this have to do with football?

Jeff Bergman taking mental snapshots of the play (Detroit Lions)

In the book The Third Team by Richard Lister, former NFL referee and supervisor of officials Jerry Seeman (the late father of Super Bowl LI line judge Jeff Seeman) described making calls on action that happens in “nanoseconds.” Former referee Jerry Markbreit (pictured above) described how he trained himself not to blink while the quarterback was calling signals, lest miss a false start.

In the same book, current head linesman Jeff Bergman describes his eyes and brain working as a camera. He said he calls a play by taking snapshots. His eyes take a snapshot of the receiver’s feet touching the ground. He takes a snapshot of the tackle having his hands on the outside of the defender’s frame noting if it’s just there or if it is grasping hold of the defender’s jersey. His brain then quickly “looks” at that snapshot and his experience and judgement then inform him what call to make. 

In his book Last Call, Markbreit describes almost the same process. He says when he made a call, it was like his eyes and mind were a projector filming the action. When the big moment came, he was able to slow his mental projector down, concentrate and get a good look at the pass/fumble call or if the defender was blocked into the kicker.

It’s football’s version of “read, pause and react.”

If it sounds difficult, it is. Not everyone can do it and those who can need a lot of practice before they are ready for prime time. That is why NFL officials need at least 10 and more like 20 years of experience at the high school and college levels before they are even ready to try it in the NFL.

When officials make calls like Seeman, Rosenbaum, Payne and the entire Super Bowl LI crew made on Sunday, it wasn’t a lucky guess. Decades of mental and visual training came into play in making those nanosecond calls.

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?"