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Week 1

7 officiating things to watch for as NFL’s 99th season launches

Seven things to look for as you zebra watch this NFL season



Referee Ronald Torbert

It is time. The 99th NFL season kicks off and its the 99th season of NFL officiating. The zebras are ready to take to the field and, for better or for worse, there will be more scrutiny than ever on NFL officiating, rules, safety, and instant replay.

Here’s what I’ll be watching for this year.

The helmet rule

The NFL, in its bid to cut down on head injuries passed strict helmet rules in the off-season. This rule is not “the end of football as we know it,” but it will present a challenge to officiate. The NFL instructed officials to “just throw” if they suspect a helmet foul in the preseason. Now, senior vice president of officiating, Al Riveron has given guidance to his officials and we’ll see how they enforce the rule.

The rule also allows officials to eject a player for flagrant use of the helmet. 

If players don’t adapt to the new rules, it could be a long season for them.

The catch rule

This normally would be the big thing to watch this season, but, see above. In last year’s playoffs, centralized replay under Riveron started using a more relaxed interpretation of a catch. They allowed the ball to slightly move as long as the player demonstrated he maintained control. 

The fans should like this new interpretation of a catch as it allows an official and Riveron to use judgement and common sense. But, more judgement could create more controversy. The old catch rule was so black and white that it took away any judgement — and people hated it. Fans wanted more common sense in the catch rules and the NFL listened.

Replay takes a role in ejecting and un-ejecting players

This normally would be the big thing to watch this season, but see above. Last year, replay showed some flagrant acts that did not result in an ejection. This year, before the next play, instant replay can step in and order an ejection issued or rescinded.  

While I hesitate expanding instant replay, this change is good. It gives an extra pair of eyes to check a flagrant play and get an angle that the officials might not have seen. It can also make things more just if the officials eject one player and miss flagging and ejecting the instigator.

Illegal double team block

Normally this would be the big thing to watch this season, but see above. It appears the kickoff is on borrowed time and slowly being phased out of the game. 

New this year, the NFL prohibits players deep in kickoff formation from double team blocking on a kickoff return. This is for player safety. This will be very difficult for the officials to call — much like an illegal defense in the NBA. We will see how many times this is called this year and how many times its missed (hopefully few on both ends of the spectrum).

Four new referees

Normally this would be the big thing to watch this season, but see above. 

At the end of last season, Ed Hochuli and Jeff Triplette announced their retirement. Then this summer came the stunner: Gene Steratore, fresh off calling Super Bowl LII and Terry McAulay announced their retirement to become officiating analysts for CBS and NBC. 

No matter how you cut it, this is a huge loss for the NFL.

In response, the NFL promoted Alex Kemp, Shawn Hochuli, Shawn Smith and Clay Martin as referees. This will mark the first time there have been four new referees in one season since the American Football League brought on 5 rookie white hats in its inaugural 1960 season. Here’s hoping they learn quickly, and I will be very interested in seeing their development.

Seven new officials

A total of 10 officials retired this off-season and seven new officials were hired, reducing the pool of roving substitutes from 5 to 2. It’s hard to make the jump from college to the pros and we wish the new hires well and we wish long and rewarding pro football careers.

New kick mechanics

This season, the NFL experimented with two new kick mechanics — the umpire in the backfield on scoring kicks and the wing officials swapping positions on kickoffs. Football Zebras has learned that the umpire in the backfield mechanic was adopted for the regular season, but the kickoff mechanic was scrapped.

A league source says the umpire’s new position will help better determine leaping fouls by the defense and also give him a better look at any illegal acts by the kicking team. One note of caution: the umpire is lined up awfully close to the kicker and any blocked kick might land right in his lap.

As for the kickoff mechanic, an officiating source said that veteran officials balked at the idea, likely because it added a new element when there are multiple rule changes to watch for. Some of the younger officials adopted a “just tell us where to go” approach, so this might be tinkered with again in the future.

Countdown to Super Bowl LIII

And to wrap up, here is my Super Bowl crew prediction (aka the Football Zebras kiss of death!):

  • Referee: Walt Coleman (celebrating his 30th season)
  • Umpire: Paul King
  • Down judge: Tom Symonette
  • Line judge: Jeff Bergman
  • Field judge: Mike Weatherford
  • Side judge: Dyrol Prioleau
  • Back judge: Steve Freeman

As referee Red Cashion said at the end of every coin toss, “Gentlemen let’s play football!”

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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