The mechanics NFL officials use to move, observe, and officiate plays have evolved over the years. While in today’s game, we would never expect to see wing officials on the field of play during live action, it was commonplace in the past. As players have become bigger, faster, and stronger, officials have had to adapt their mechanics to maximize their ability to accurately officiate plays. Typically these mechanics focus on utilizing angles to observe important areas such as feet near the sideline or the possession and control of the football. How officials move before and during a play affects their ability to not only find these important angles but also their ability to see and process the information presented to them, which can often only last split seconds.Embed from Getty Images
Officials moving onto the field during active play was commonplace in early NFL games.
Every leader of the officiating department has their own philosophy for officiating movement and mechanics, and current senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson is no exception. Anderson has implemented an overarching philosophy termed “Move with Purpose” for today’s NFL officials, and it is based on the science of dynamic visual processing.
Neuro-ophthalmology enters the (clearer) picture
As documented in a journal article in Ophthalmology Times, Anderson reached out to Dr. Andrew Lee, a neuro-ophthalmologist, to identify ways to improve the ability of NFL officials to observe and process visual information. Every official at every level is taught that if you are moving, your ability to officiate a play accurately decreases. This is because when an official moves, their head moves, making it very difficult to focus and process visual information.
Not only will an official move during a play, but their eyes will move as well. Typically they will either move their eye in saccades or a smooth pursuit. A saccade is a rapid eye movement from one focus point to another. An example of a saccade may be the umpire moving his focus from block to block as they look for holding, or a wing official moving their focus from the ball to the runner’s knee to determine if a fumble has occurred before the player is down. Smooth pursuit is the opposite of a saccade movement, where the observer is slowly tracking a moving stimulus. An example of this is a deep wing or back judge tracking a receiver-defender combo as a pass comes their way.
Dr. Lee is helping Anderson implement techniques to encourage NFL officials to become more aware of these types of eye movements and how to best position themselves to minimize any challenges related to human limitations. The three questions Dr. Lee and Anderson want officials to think about are (1) “Do I have an unobstructed view of the play?”, (2) “Do I have to move to see what I need to see?” and (3) “If I do have to move, how do I get there with minimal disruption of my visual acuity?”. Officials will still be rated on call accuracy, but will also be evaluated on whether they were in the proper position and moving in the proper way to observe the play.Embed from Getty Images
Officials are stationary whenever possible, especially on plays in the endzone.
However, some aspects of these Move with Purpose mechanics are only viable in the NFL due to the existence of replay and multiple high-definition cameras. In high school and even the NCAA, many deep wings attempt to keep all the players boxed in and retreat during a long play to cover the deeper portion of the field and the goal line.
Steady movement is the key
In the NFL, on these similar long plays, deep wings are now instructed to slow or stop their movements as soon as the ball is thrown by the quarterback, if not sooner, or as a runner approaches their primary coverage area, assuming they have an unobstructed view of the play. In the cases where the receiver catches the ball and continues his run, fans may think the official is out of position and are unable to get ahead of the runner to cover the goal line once the receiver has moved past them.
Jim Tunney — known as the Dean of Referees after his 31-year NFL tenure — has noticed. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Tunney said, “I see a play down the field and I wonder where the side judge was, where the back judge was, see where he was so he could make the call. In officiating, it’s positioning. If you’re in the right position at the right time, you’re going to make the right call. We’re trained that way.”Embed from Getty Images
On long pass plays, NFL deep wing officials are often behind the play as they sacrafice movement to improve their ability to observe the play.
Are officials in harm’s way?
Short wings — the down judge and the line judge — have also been instructed to move less, which can sometimes put them in harm’s way. An example of this is when down judge Patrick Holt was knocked down by Steelers RB Najee Harris. Harris was coming toward Holt’s sideline on a running play, and Holt was unable to avoid contact with Harris. Previously, line-of-scrimmage officials were instructed to retreat toward the backfield whenever a running play was moving toward them. In this case, and with the new mechanics, Holt attempted to stay stationary as long as possible to officiate the play, leaving him open to the collision. Thankfully, Holt was not seriously injured and remained in the game. But there appears to be an increase in sideline injuries to officials this year.
Not all wings are lucky, as down judge Derrick Bowers took a shot in the first quarter of Week 1 remaining stationary at the sideline. With the action approaching the sideline, he slowly retreated backward a few steps, but the momentum of the players carried right into him. He was sidelined due to season-ending surgery after working only 17 snaps this season. Retired officials we talked to feel that the MWP mechanics placed him in harm’s way.
Overlapping at the dead-ball spot
Finally, and what may cause the most angst among football officials watching the NFL, long sideline plays can often result in both wings standing next to each other at the end of a play. High school and NCAA deep wings are taught to let the short wing cover any progress spot while the deep wing watches, from a distance, for late hits and other potential fouls. The new NFL mechanic no longer values this division of responsibility for the wing officials, as there have been several times where the two wings awkwardly end up at the dead ball spot.
Anderson and the NFL seem to be willing to sacrifice goal-line coverage for any improvement in observation that MWP mechanics bring, specifically because of the existence of replay. Perhaps, because the NFL is such a different game from high school and NCAA football, it shouldn’t be surprising that the NFL may institute different mechanics for their officials. Still, it will take some getting used to for those fans who also officiate on Fridays and Saturdays.