Commentary and analysis by Ben Austro
Al Riveron has opened the annual officiating clinic in Plano, Texas, with an extraordinarily busy agenda to complete. It is not hyperbole to say the success of the season depends on what is accomplished at the clinic.
There is also ample evidence that Riveron is in the hot seat and cannot have a season steeped in controversies. Multiple sources told Football Zebras last year that bonus compensation for Riveron and his senior staff were held effectively as ransom midseason to encourage a fix to the replay controversies. Then, entering the conference championship weekend, this lede appeared in a story on his employer’s website, which is the least positive message regarding continual employment:
Alberto Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, will return for the 2018 season, an NFL spokesman confirmed to NFL.com on Tuesday.
In short, Riveron needs a great clinic this weekend. And he needs this season to go off without a hitch in officiating.
As pointed out by Kevin Seifert at ESPN, there already is disarray as late departures from referees Terry McAulay and Gene Steratore left Riveron scrambling to fill the third and fourth referee vacancies. Not since Bob Austin, supervisor of officials for the American Football League in their inaugural 1960 season, has there been an officiating boss with this many first-time pro referees. Crew assignments were handed out later than usual (which actually worked out this time, as McAulay’s and Steratore’s crews would have had to be reassigned). Rules videos or any significant discussion of the rule changes were not sent out with the commencement of the officiating calendar on May 15, preferring to hold most of that for the clinic. Some discussion was held when the officials met in New York at the end of May for an annual miniclinic that typically focuses on conditioning. Riveron has 21 full-time officials (more accurately described as year-round officials) at his disposal to work out the kinks in the new rules, but sources have said there was no discussion or meetings with them.
The chaotic offseason does create a distraction, but the officials have shown the ability to push that aside come gametime, as evidenced in their swift return to the field after the 2012 lockout. The rule changes themselves are largely straightforward and most will not present any issues. But there are three areas of concern that need to be worked over during the clinic.
Much has been made about the revision to the catch rule, which removed the controversial aspect of controlling the caught ball through contact with the ground. There is some new subjectivity in the rule, which is a good thing in this case. In an effort to add some hard lines of catch/no catch in the rules, mostly for replay’s benefit, it has chipped away at an official’s “football sense” when determining a catch. The elements of two feet down and control of the ball for a recognizable element of time have been in place since the 1930s, and only the wording has changed.
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While this shouldn’t be a challenge for the on-field officials, the real issue will be in replay after a disastrous 2017 season of questionable decisions. With the return of an official’s football sense to the rulebook, replay would be best served to stay with the catch calls on the field, and only reverse to incomplete when an angle shows a loose ball or clear lack of control that the on-field official could not see.
The rules regarding the use of the helmet are not as straightforward and will require extensive video review and “keys” for officials to watch for. There have been a few videos from the NFL released on the topic, mostly addressing open field hits and the criteria for ejecting a player. There has been no focus about helmet contact in interior line play, other than a vague mention by Riveron that players in a 3-point stance might be at a disadvantage under the new rule due to the possibility of helmet contact when rising out of the stance. Apparently the officials don’t have much more information than that entering clinic weekend.
The extensive changes to the kickoff rules present very specific challenges to the officials. Not only are the interpretations of the new rules important, but also it presents a whole new set of officiating mechanics, or uniform procedures to ensure consistency and best positioning.
On a kickoff, the back judge and the umpire watch the kicking team’s restraining line (35) for offside and other infractions; the field judge and the side judge are 10 yards away on the receiving team’s restraining line (45), and monitoring onside kicks. The down judge and line judge hold the goal line, and the referee is on the end line. The bulk of the new kickoff rules have key focal points between -1 and 25 yards from the ball, and in the zone of the “up” wings.
Previously, the kicking team was allowed a 5-yard head start, which is reduced to 1 yard. How will this be monitored, as it is academic for both player and official when a 5-yard stripe is involved? Much like on a scrimmage play, the wings will now need to give an okay or a push-up gesture to players that are in far reaches of the formation.
The field judge and side judge will also have formation responsibilities for the first time, as 8 receiving-team players must be in the newly established “setup zone” illustrated above. Once the ball is kicked in the air, the receiving team may not cross the 45 or block anyone up to the 50 until the ball has touched the ground or a player. How do they focus on both zones on an airborne kick? When an onside kick is popped in the air, as opposed to ground-hopped, how is that handled? Should someone watch the ball as it comes off the tee to see if it touches the ground?
When there is no TV timeout following a touchdown, the play clock for the kickoff starts just 40 seconds after the extra-point conversion; this requires being in position 50+ yards upfield in that time and being ready to go, while using preventative officiating for the new rule whenever possible. Even with officials using preventative officiating methods, I still feel the number of penalties on kickoffs, particularly in the early weeks of the season, will be frustratingly pervasive.
How this is all done requires uniform mechanics to be established in advance, rather than each one freelancing a method when they get to the field. Those mechanics are being introduced to the officials during the clinic. With training camps opening and the preseason starting in the next three weeks, there is very little time for refinement.
In essence, Riveron needs everything introduced at the clinic to work flawlessly if we are to see him at the 2019 clinic.