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Transparency in the officiating department hits a low mark in a muddled video

A look at an officiating department video that is wrong on several counts.



Commentary by Ben Austro

Under previous NFL officiating administrations, Fridays were sort of a news dump of rulesplaining in their weekly “media tapes.”

The original purpose of the media tapes was to allow the officiating department to communicate with members of the media to clarify calls and rules interpretations that had recently come up. This was intended to educate, so the video did not always dive into the hot-button controversial plays unless there was a rule or interpretation. These tapes were regularly covered here, and gradually they became more of a public-facing release of videos.

The last media tape was produced at the end of the 2019 season, and voiced by the senior vice president of officiating at the time, Al Riveron, who left his position just prior to the start of the 2021 preseason. The current leadership is split between the actual officiating apparatus and the administrative roles, senior vice presidents Walt Anderson (a former referee) and Perry Fewell (a former interim coach and defensive coordinator).

At the beginning of the season, the officiating department’s transparency and outreach was essentially set to dark void. The officiating department Twitter account was fairly disengaged to start the season, which oddly changed abruptly after this tweet.

The account now tweets out some interpretive information, usually centered around replay reviews. And now, the officiating department is placing a proxy media tape out which has multiple problems.

The latest is narrated by Fewell, who has no officiating experience. His perfunctory delivery of a highly robotic script of ranks and serial numbers sounds like it was constructed with preprinted word tiles. It is the response you might get to, “Alexa, is this a completed catch?”

But beyond that is the amount of errors made in the video released by the officiating department. With time to review everything for a few days, this is the best we can do for transparency?

The first play addresses an overturned catch which left even the trained eyes confused. Fewell says, “visual evidence showed the ball hitting the ground before Baltimore 89 gained possession.” This fails on two points. The ball may touch the ground during the catch process as long as it is in the receiver’s full and continuous control. There is no evidence showing the ball shifting or the ground assisting the catch. It also really stretches what “visual evidence showed” and by most observers, this is inconclusive evidence to overturn the catch.

The second play is the upholding of a catch in the end zone, which Fewell asserts the catch process was completed before the ball came out. Since the receiver is going to the ground, he must hold the ball with the ground. When determining if a player has “survived the ground” with the ball, it is not an immediate call the instant the body contacts the ground. There is an element of time that must be established — a very brief moment — that demonstrates that control was maintained through the contact to the ground.

The third play involves contact to the head or neck area of an upright runner in the open field. As we pointed out on Sunday, a runner may be contacted in the head, even helmet-to-helmet. While there is a shoulder leaning in as part of the initial contact, this was not shoulder-to-head contact. So, we agree that this is a legal play, but the justification for it is not correct.

Finally, a trick punt play by the Vikings was foiled when the snap was shut down as being premature and not ready for play. The umpire is seen getting into position, but Fewell says “as the referee was signaling [ready for play], the snap took place.” This does not make sense that the center snapped the ball prematurely if the referee is signaling ready for play. The referee’s hand comes all the way down, and is followed immediately by the snap. The umpire is seen pointing to the center (this signal means the kicking team is not in standard formation and the defense is allowed to line up opposite of the center) but there is no requirement that this signal be completed prior to a legal snap. The snap was perfectly timed, as words have meanings: a ready-for-play signal means just that. It is circling the wagons to suggest otherwise.

The officiating department can do much better than this. Seeing as they went 0-4 in this video — actually five errors in four plays — there really is only one direction to go.

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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