One game left in the NFL’s 103rd season. As we get ready for Super Bowl LVII, here are 6 officiating observations I saw as I zebra-watched this fall and winter.
1. Crack down on foreign objects to help kickers
Football Zebras broke the story this season where the NFL instructed game officials to crack down on place kick holders using foreign objects to improve the the hold and increase the kick chances. While not a tee block or towels, the tiny object is illegal. It is unknown if this became a fad during this season or has been a practice in seasons past. No matter, the NFL told officials to penalize the kicking team for unsportsmanlike conduct if they observed it.
In a related story, Football Zebras also broke the news that kickers could not elevate the ball on a high part of a tee, reversing an earlier interpretation that allowed the practice.
2. Pushing the ball carrier
On goal-line plays and quarterback-sneak plays this year, we saw an inordinate amount of players pushing the ball carrier forward, trying to get a touchdown or a first down.
It is legal to push a player forward, but it is illegal for a team-mate to pull or carry a ball carrier. It is a very rare call, in fact George H.W. Bush was president the last time a NFL official flagged helping the runner. But, with pushing the runner now an accepted strategy by all teams, the NFL told its officials this season to watch for anyone pulling or carrying the ball carrier forward. I wonder if pushing the runner will be legal or illegal this coming Fall?
3. Hurry-up offense now a strategy to get around replay assist
Replay-assisted review finished its second season. It is an excellent tool for officials to use and prevents extra stops to go under the hood. If the replay official sees something obvious on replay before the play clock reaches 20 seconds, they can radio to the officiating crew to make a quick correction of an element that is reviewable under the rules.
The replay official instantaneously has access to all TV angles, but if it takes some investigation to find a key angle, then a replay assist won’t be able to jump in. In that case, it is up to the coach to challenge the call or if under two minutes for the replay officials to stop for a conventional review. If offense runs hurry-up before the replay official can assist or before the coach can decide to challenge the play, then it can evade review
The NFL doesn’t want the replay officials to stop the game for replay assist if they can’t see a clear and obvious replay angle. Replay assist is to help correct the glaring calls. Unless the NFL adopts the NCAA replay model in which the replay official stops the game for replay 90% of the time (coaches get one challenge), I think this is a problem we are stuck with.
4. Under 20 ejections for the second straight season
NFL officials ejected a total of 16 players this season. In 2021, there were a scant 13 ejections. From 2017-2020 there were over 20 ejections each season.
I think a more strict fine structure and the occasional suspension is making players think twice before going fist city. Also, centralized replay can weigh in on who should be ejected. That means players can’t get a free shot if the seven officials aren’t looking.
Perhaps most importantly, getting kicked out of the game can really harm his team’s chances of winning.
Whatever the reason for the sub-20 ejections two years in a row, let us hope it becomes a trend in the coming seasons.
5. Ineligible downfield crackdown
The NFL gave the officials a point of emphasis this season to crack down on ineligible linemen going downfield on a pass play. The player gets two yards grace to ensure every body part is beyond a yard. The officials did not give an inch beyond two yards this year. In an era of run/pass option plays, the risk of ineligibles downfield goes up.
6. No practice kicks
The NFL doesn’t want kickers to get in a practice kick when the defense calls a timeout at the last second. In the past if the defense called a timeout at the last instant to ice the kicker, the kicking team snapped the ball and the kicker got a practice kick. So this season the umpire was instructed to prevent the kicker from kicking the ball. It lead to the umpire intercepting several snaps and one humorous moment with rookie umpire Alex Moore.
As always, the NFL season produced several twists and turns not only with teams, but with the officials.
Enjoy the final game of the 2022 season!