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Prevent defense: NFL reviewing 5-man officiating mechanics in case of staffing shortages

Sources tell Football Zebras the NFL is training its officials on how to call a game with only 5 officials



Football Zebras exclusive

In an offseason that began with discussions on adding an eighth official to the crew, the league is now planning on having less than a full crew available for its games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

There are currently 119 officials, exactly the amount needed to staff 17 crews. There are no swing officials to use as substitutes. In a non-bye week, there is one crew that is off, which can be utilized to fill open spots. In a pinch an official can work Thursday and Sunday/Monday the same week. But this season has the likelihood of an inordinate number of absences puts the league in the position of having to resort to a drastic contingency plan.

As the officials gather — remotely — for their annual clinic, sources tell Football Zebras the league is now training its officials on how to call a game with only 5 officials and redistribute their responsibilities. This is reminiscent of how officiating has been reduced to crews of 5 or even 4 at the high school level in many states due to shortages. 

During the regular season an NFL crew only dips into 6-official mechanics when an official is injured during the game. Usually this is accomplished by sacrificing a deep position and having adjacent officials widen their coverage area. The league last had crews of 5 officials between 1947 and 1964 before the line judge was added in response to scrambling quarterbacks like Fran Tarkenton. The side judge was added in 1978.

The possibility in reducing crews to 5 is part of multiple measures to address in the pandemic, including the use of facial masks and electronic whistles by officials and to limit travel by replay assistants by regionally assigning them. One of the considerations that must be looked at is the competitive imbalance if the league decides to reduce to 5 officials out of necessity during the season, as some games would be officiated with 7.

At least half of the preseason has already been cancelled, and we cannot ignore the fact that it’s a very distinct possibility that there will not be a 2020 season.

The full details of the NFL crew-of-5 mechanics are not finalized, and it is possible to deviate from the high school mechanics since there is a backup in the replay booth. Although it’s not likely, we cannot rule out the possibility that the replay official may be able to assist on a call based on their initial observation of the play. Currently there are 5 replay officials that are retired NFL on-field officials.

Challenges posed by 5-official mechanics

Working without a full crew expands the assignments and responsibilities of the remaining officials, and there will be a few major holes where this will be most evident.

The first and probably biggest area is in the passing game. In a normal 7-man crew there are five officials that cover receivers as they go downfield, and this allows for an official to be dedicated to each match-up as the receivers run their routes. In traditional 5-man mechanics there will be only three officials to cover the passing game: the back judge, the down judge, and the line judge. In the sophisticated downfield passing offenses that the NFL has will make covering routes to the deep wings of the field very difficult. Two of the three officials will also generally have multiple receivers to watch at the start of the play based on the formation.

With this being the case, officials will be unable to keep as close of a watch on the early development of routes which could lead to advantages for defenses getting a quick grab of a receiver or for offensive players running pick plays. Catch/no catch on short or medium routes may also prove tough because in a traditional 5-man setup the umpire can turns with the pass and can help determine if a pass was trapped or caught clean. The NFL opting to have the umpire behind the offense takes away this option, and the call will be coming from the wings or back judge who may be far away and not have a great angle to see that. 

The other major hole will be on plays going into the end zone, especially those that develop from the edge or just outside of the red zone. In 7-man mechanics, when the ball is snapped at or inside the 25-yard line, the back judge moves to the end line and the deep wings are stationed at the goal line. This allows for the officials to be set and ready for any play that threatens the pylon or the back of the end zone.

With only five officials, the back judge will have the goal line and end line on all such plays that start outside the 10-yard line. On a running play that goes to the pylon, the back judge and deep official will have to piece together if the runner stepped out or crossed the goal line inbounds from a greater distance than if they had a deep wing. On passes to the end zone, the back judge will have to read the pass and determine if he needs to stay on the goal line or move to the end line to determine in or out of bounds on a catch.

Plays that start at or inside the 10-yard line will be a little closer to normal, but without the extra set of eyes from the deep wings that can help on catches at the side line or end line. Replay can certainly help with these issues, but the greater area that needs to be covered will be a challenge for the officials if they have to revert to 5-man mechanics. 

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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