Stick to the Manuals to Ensure Consistency
By Jon Bible
Over the years I’ve seen and worked with officials who seem to think that mechanics manuals are like buffet lines — chock full of items to be chosen or ignored as the consumer sees fit. The attitude that they know the one “true” way and will follow it regardless of what the prescribed mechanics require afflicts veterans more than younger officials, but some of the latter group are also guilty. And, lest I come across as holierthan- thou, I will own up to some freelancing on occasion.
I submit, however, that approach is wrong for several reasons. While we may disagree with the mechanics that our league or conference has adopted, it is incumbent on all of us to adhere to them. We can go through channels to try to get them changed to reflect our notions of how the field should be covered and how crew members should interact, but if we are unsuccessful we should bite the bulletand go along.
Having been involved in developing mechanics in different sports and levels, I’d first like to make a point. Although sometimes drafters either are empowered to promulgate mechanics that reflect their own views or are in agreement about what they produce, the more likely scenario is that they were faced with conflicting views on particular points and, in the interest of uniformity, had to arrive at a compromise.
The bottom line is that if you believe a mechanic is unworkable or just plain stupid, chances are that some people involved in its drafting felt the same way. Either another group succeeded in securing enough votes to get it adopted, or the mechanic was really favored by virtually no one and instead was the product of a last-ditch effort at compromise. All the same, it is what it is, as they say, and we need to adhere to the mechanic unless it is changed. To do otherwise can produce unfortunate consequences.
One problem with deviating from the mechanics manual is that it can lead to even more inconsistency in onfield calls by the officials who are governed by that manual than would otherwise be the case. If, for example, my crew and I took it upon ourselves to adhere to an old mechanic because we thought a new one was faulty, it would be reasonable to expect that, over the course of the season, our number of calls for related plays would be somewhat, and perhaps significantly, different from other crews’ numbers. Some members of my crew would have different looks at the players’ actions than they would have had if they used the mechanic everyone else was using.
A crew at the BCS level is, of course, not going to deviate from the prescribed mechanic so blatantly because we’d have our rear ends handed to us on a platter if we did. But I know that a high school or lower level crew might do so because I’ve seen it done. It reflects badly on a league or association to have significant differences in the number of fouls called from crew to crew, and to have crews handling the same situation differently from a mechanical standpoint can only exacerbate the problem.
Mechanics mavericks also cause problems for other members of the crew in a game who might be used to doing things the proper way. It is very disconcerting, for example, for me as a referee to be used to my umpire doing things a particular way, and then, on a given Saturday, to have a different umpire who dances to his own tune. Even if a crew stays together all year and perhaps for several years, there may be occasions when a member has to be replaced for one or two games due to illness or work conflicts, and if that crew has decided to go its own way mechanically, chaos can ensue when the replacement joins them. Adjusting can be especially difficult for younger officials who have enough on their hands to master what the prescribed manual says without having to deal with the new twist that the maverick brings to the table. For a crew to function well, it has to be able to cover plays and to have its members interrelate automatically, without having to constantly think about what the other members are going to do in a given situation, and that can’t happen when freelancing occurs.
Then there is the “copycat” syndrome. If one crew or individual deviates from the mechanics manual and word gets around that has been done and has brought on no repercussions, others will infer that they are free to do the same thing. The next thing you know there will be several different crews or officials striking out on their own, thus destroying any semblance of consistency within that group.
I’ve also seen the freelancing approach backfire on a crew because of the expectations of coaches. If their lives depended on it, the average coach could not stand before a group and intelligently discuss where the umpire or back judge is supposed to be, and who he is supposed to watch, in particular play situations.
But on the field, most do have a sense of what the answer should be. If, week to week, every crew but one covers kickoffs or formations with triple receivers the same way, or one member of a crew that otherwise adheres to the mechanics manual does things differently, the deviating crew or member will stand out. If something happens on the play that the coach doesn’t like, the perception that the crew or official is out of position or is simply doing their own thing will only give the coach more fuel to add to his already burning fire.
For obvious reasons, the freelancing approach can also bite us in the backside if there is an observer or officials’ scout in the stands who knows how plays are supposed to be worked and can easily spot a deviation by the crew or by an official in the crew. Having been a supervisor for many years, I can guarantee that the perception that a crew or crew member is “going it alone” is not calculated to result in kudos or in career advancement.
A word about officiating clinics and camps, of which, as the late sportscaster Howard Cosell might say, there are now a veritable plethora. I’ve attended and been an instructor at some of those camps, and I know that many offer a great deal of valuable information. The ones that feature NFL and top college officials can be especially good in many different ways, among them the ability of those officials to enlighten the campers as to philosophy and to the subtle tricks that they’ve learned over the years to increase their chances of getting plays right.
The problem is that sometimes the information about field coverage or position mechanics that is imparted at those clinics is inconsistent with the proscribed mechanics in a particular conference, league, association or state. On more than one occasion I’ve heard of campers who took what they learned at a camp, applied it on the field when they got back home and got reamed by an observer because it was inconsistent with the local mechanics.
At the end of the day, my advice is that it is good to absorb what the top officials tell you at those camps and to file it in your memory bank for possible future use. But when you get home, do what you’re supposed to do. It may well be that what you learned at the camp is better, but the best approach is to try to convince the powers-that-be in your area that is the case. Sometimes those who write mechanics are open to new suggestions and willing to adapt, but there are also those who don’t want any part of what the NFL or major conferences do, or have a vested interest in a mechanic because they wrote it or things have always been done that way. So they will stick with a mechanic come hell or high water for that reason alone. Officials need to understand and recognize that, despite all of the great new stuff that they may have learned at a camp, when they are home they need to go along to get along. Their careers can easily be stalled or even killed if they decide to dance to their own tune.
Most officials have healthy egos, and the longer we work, the greater the tendency is to think that we know best how particular play situations should be handled. However, in the interest of uniformity, among other things, the best approach is for us to check our egos at the locker room door and do things “by the book.” We can cause many problems for ourselves, our crews and the other crews in our league or association if we don’t.
Jon Bible is a veteran football official from Austin, Texas. He is a referee in the Big 12 Conference and worked the 2008 BCS national championship game.