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2019 Conference Championships

Working the official? Putting a bug in their ear? What exactly was Kyle Shanahan doing?

A head coach can chat up an official between plays, but is it acceptable?



In this week’s Inside the NFL on Showtime, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan can be seen and heard doing what’s known as “working the official,” that is, alerting the official to potential things an opposing team is doing or might do that is a violation of the rules. This can lead many fans and players alike to proclaim that a given official is in the tank for a given team or coach. That is not the case.

Before each game at all levels, the officials will meet with the coaches of both teams. The purpose is to:

  • Make sure all players are properly equipped
  • Get captain’s numbers
  • See if there are any trick plays or formations that the crew should be alert for
  • Ask the coach if he has any questions

However, during the course of the game, it’s common to find coaches alerting the officials for things to key in on that might be worth a penalty. Who can blame them? They’re trying to get any tactical advantage they can get over their opponent. Officials are aware of this, but they still will listen to the coach’s concerns. As Football Zebras senior editor and longtime high school official Mark Schultz said in a 2013 post, this practice is not being “worked” but referred to as putting a “bug in their ears.”

The officiating crew assures the coach that they will watch out for the coach’s concern.  The crew does not tell the opposing coach of anything discussed.  The officials will watch out for the coach’s request, but if they obsess over spotting it, they will miss several other calls.

Shanahan’s playcall anticipates the defense

Still, the conversation is worth highlighting as it gives us both a glimpse into officiating mechanics and the coaching points teams use to game plan around. There are numerous instances of Shanahan correctly predicting the outcome of plays before they even happen because of how adept he is figuring out opposing team’s game plans against his own offense.

Falcons tight end Austin Hooper recalled that during the 2016 season, Shanahan would routinely tell them things that would happen in a given game if they called certain plays and Hooper said they would happen during the game.

49ers left tackle Joe Staley recounted a similar occurrence earlier this season during their Monday night game against the Browns.

To the casual observer, the following exchange might look to them like he is “putting the bug in the official’s ear.” But there is a much more likely explanation. In the video, Shanahan can be heard saying to side judge Eugene Hall:

I got a 5-yard out route, #85 versus their guy. He’s going to go inside and break out. He won’t let him out, watch.

Number 85 is tight end George Kittle and he’s running a choice route where he has the option to cut inside, cut outside, or sit in the zone depending on the defender leverage’s and whether or not it’s zone or man coverage. The 49ers are in a 3×1 receiver set with the trips to the right. The motion indicates man coverage across the field as the corner out wide follows the receiver to the trips stack. Cornerback Will Redmond in a press-man technique on Kittle, who is in a cut split to the left.

Shanahan has experience coaching with and against Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. They were both coaches together in Cleveland in 2014 when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator to head coach Pettine. Shanahan likely knew the tendencies Pettine’s defenders would show and the look they got from the defensive alignment confirmed this.

Redmond’s goal is to take away the out route with his leverage as he’s lined up shaded to Kittle’s outside shoulder. He wants to funnel Kittle inside to the middle linebacker who’s playing a short hole responsibility and will help on any in-breaking route in their cover-1 man defense because Redmond has no safety help over the top and no help on anything outside.

Officials examine the play based on their keys

Shanahan coaches his receivers to do certain things against the coverage because he knows that the defender will not give up certain leverage. Kittle takes an inside release and Redmond immediately presses the outside shoulder to prevent that cut, trying to funnel Kittle inside. Kittle fights to cut out, and ultimately does with Redmond still grabbing and tugging on Kittle’s shoulder. The flags come out immediately for pass interference, as you can see in the all-22 sideline angle.

Eugene Hall — the side judge for the NFC Championship game, the one whose ear Shanahan had — throws the flag simultaneous with down judge Jerod Phillips, dispelling any notion that the officials are in the coach’s back pocket.

Both covering officials make a quick and easy decision to rule on pass interference. Officiating keys in passing situations have the down judge responsible for watching the “nearest receiver for first 7 yards of route downfield until receiver is clear of legal point of contact for defensive backs.” The side judge “makes sure widest receiver on nearest side of the field is able to run his route without defensive interference.” So they’re already watching for contact by the players in their area of responsibility during each play.

As our Mark Schultz adds, this practice does not guarantee the coach will get a favorable call. “The officials act with courtesy to these requests and then go out and officiate their regular game.  If the officials detect a foul, they’ll drop their flag — not to make a coach happy, but because the foul is actually there.”

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