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When to warn, when to flag

NFL officials warn players to stay legal more than you think. But some infractions demand a flag, not a warning.



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The Week 14 Chiefs – Bills game brought up the concept of officials “warning” players not to foul thus preventing a flag at a critical moment.

Where does the official draw the line between warning a player to get legal and a foul that can’t be ignored and must be called?

What must be called every time without warning

An official from Pop Warner to the NFL must always call a safety foul. Officials must never let go a facemask, chop block, targeting, late hit or leg whip foul. No warnings. If an official warns a player after the player commits a safety foul, everyone knows the player got away with one. So now the other team thinks they can get away with one and things will get quickly out of control.

When to warn when players are in the gray area

Believe it or not, officials don’t like throwing flags. Officials work with players on and off the field to help them stay legal. This clip is nine years old, but still relevant now, of line judge Tim Podraza making sure the 49ers are lined up legally.

If the backs are getting a little twitchy before the snap, the referee warns the backs to hold still or they risk an illegal motion penalty. If the guard is starting to get his hands outside the frame of the defender, but there is no unfair advantage yet, the umpire will warn the guard to “keep your hands in.” If a defender is lining up two inches in the neutral zone before the snap, the wing officials will warn the player to back up. The wide receiver will come out and declare he wants to be on the line of scrimmage. The wing official will either say, “You’re good” or “Move up half a step.” If a defender is getting a little too excited and his gesticulations start to inflame the offense, an official might say, “Take it back to the huddle. I know you’re excited, but don’t taunt. Celebrate with your teammates.”

All of the above issues are in the gray area. If the official would call each of the above scenarios, the amount of penalties each game would explode and fans would grow disgusted at the avalanche of yellow laundry on the field.

But some things the official can’t ignore

While officials work hard to prevent flags, there are some non-safety infractions the officials cannot ignore.

If a guard grabs a defender so hard it pulls the defender off-stride and the runner goes right by him, the official must flag it. The offense got an unfair advantage. If a defender gets into a receivers face,  and pokes his facemask and tells him where to go and how to get there, the officials can’t try to calm the situation. The defender is way over the “talk to” line and he must be penalized.

Sometimes, it is an infraction that officials are told to be vigilant about, and teams are told to be mindful in a particular area. This takes place of the warning for a “free” infraction. This included offensive offside.

Officials also subscribe to the philosophy of calling something that is “in front of God and everybody.” If the whole stadium sees a receiver so far into the neutral zone that the down judge can’t see the ball, it must be flagged. Had down judge Mike Carr not penalized Kadarius Toney, we would have spent all this week fielding messages from enraged Bills fans demanding to know why the official didn’t call an “obvious” offside foul. And we wouldn’t have had a good answer for them.

When an official throws a flag, most of the time they don’t know the outcome of a play. They make a split-second judgement whether or not to ignore, warn or flag. These are the tough calls an official makes. And it separates those that are courageous enough to take the field in the stripes and those who sit on the couch and berate the officials.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"