The NFL’s coronavirus contingency plan of reducing officiating crews from 7 to 5 officials is taking shape, and it is apparent that the pro version of these plans will divert attention away from the interior linemen and focus more on the defensive secondary. The crew assignments posted here in June, and confirmed by the NFL this weekend, are currently for crews of 7.
Details are now emerging from our sources on how the 5-official crew would work in the NFL, which were presented to the officials at their annual July clinic, a remote gathering this year. Unburdened from extensive rules changes, which appears to be deliberate based on the tremendous uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, the clinic was able to devote instruction time to these contingencies. There are not enough officials to account for voluntary or involuntary vacancies, so any staffing shortage will result in reducing the crews.
At the high-school level, the officiating mechanics for a crew of 5 create balance with the linesman and umpire (behind the defensive line) monitoring line play and two deep officials keying on receiver sets. The referee watches the snap and transitions to the quarterback as the play advances.
The NFL has created new mechanics for a 5-official crew, with the referee taking over umpire’s duties, one line-of-scrimmage official, and the standard 3 deep officials. This obviously shows the desire to emphasize the passing game and excessively minimizes the oversight on the offensive and defensive line play. Given the differences in the Friday and Sunday game, the NFL has made the calculus that sacrificing fouls that occur in the trenches is a necessary trade-off for the coverage of the passing game.
Deep officials can also assist on false start calls at the snap and shift focus to the linemen on obvious running plays, however their placement over 20 yards away really limits their ability to effectively make these calls except in obvious circumstances. Replay reviews are not permitted for calls that come at the snap with the exception of 12 men on the field. Could the replay official prompt a flag based on a live look of the interior line? It’s possible, but it seems incredibly unlikely from the information we received.
The referee would continue to have a key on the quarterback, so calls such as roughing the passer will be called with little adjustment. Because the position will be the primary on ball spotting, this means the referee will have to follow the runner after the play.
There are still a myriad of variables that would have to be addressed, notably that 17 umpires would seemingly be idle or be required to shift out of position. Additionally, what happens when a white hat is quarantined? Which officials would be bumped up to the referee position? We are also unclear at this point what triggering mechanism would bring about an across-the-board crew reduction. Conceivably, if 2 officials test positive for covid-19 prior to a game, that crew would immediately be reduced to 5, and apparently there will be additional shuffling should there be 3 positive cases.
The theoretical limit would be one less crew and 80 of the 119 officials being available on a weekend. At that point, there could be some Thursday crews pulling double-duty to gain another 5 personnel, but by that point a suspension of the season would be clearly in order.