Football – Referees Can Prevent Abuse of Timing Rules

Timing rules are precise. They give us specific directions when to start or stop the clock. They also tell us whether or not the clock is to start on the snap. Timing considerations are based on how the previous play ended or the results of penalty enforcement. However, it is possible for a team to exploit timing rules to place the opponent at a disadvantage.

To counter a team gaining an unfair timing benefit, the referee has the authority to alter normal timing rules. That is done by starting or stopping the clock when a team illegally conserves or consumes time (NFHS 3-4-6; NCAA 3-4-3).

Play 1: Team A leads, 7-6, and the game clock is running when A1 false starts with 30 seconds remaining in the game. Ruling 1: A five-yard dead ball penalty is assessed against team A. Normal timing rules call for the clock to start on the ready, but if the referee believed the foul was committed to consume time, the clock should start on the snap. Team A would benefit from the clock starting on the ready. Without altering standard timing rules, team A could continue to commit dead-ball fouls until time runs out.

Play 2: Team A leads, 7-6, and the game clock is running when team A stays in the huddle and intentionally takes a delay penalty. Ruling 2: In NFHS, the clock starts on the snap after any accepted delay of game penalty (3-4-3i). There is no need to alter timing rules to compensate for team A deliberately stalling. In NCAA, the clock starts on the ready after a delay foul if the clock was running (3-2-5a-4). However, the referee would have the discretion in that situation to have the clock start on the snap.

Play 3: Team B leads, 7-6, and the game clock is running. Before the snap, B1 crosses the neutral zone and contacts the snapper. Ruling 3: That is encroachment (NFHS) or offside (NCAA). After the five-yard penalty is enforced, the referee should not restart the clock. To do so would put team A at a timing disadvantage because team B’s illegal act caused more time to be consumed.

A related rule (NFHS 3-5-7k; NCAA 3-4-3) can be invoked if there is any unusual delay in getting the ball ready for play. There is no penalty if neither team is to blame for the holdup.

Play 4: A1’s fumble is followed by a scramble to recover the ball. The officials cannot immediately tell who has the football. Ruling 4: Any official close to the pile should signal the clock to stop. If a team A player has the ball and a first down was not made, officials should wind the clock immediately. If a first down was made, the clock remains stopped until the next ready signal. If a team B player has the ball, the clock remains stopped due to a change of team possession.

Play 5: Team A is in a hurry-up offense near the end of the first half. A1 is tackled inbounds short of the lineto gain near the sideline. When relaying the ball to the umpire, the linesman throws an errant pass that lands several yards from the inbounds spot. Ruling 5: The referee can stop the clock until the ball is spotted and then signal the clock to start. No team is at fault for the delay.

Consuming time by failing to unpile in a timely manner after a down ends can cause officials to alter normal timing rules. You typically see that tactic used by the team ahead in the score.

Play 6: Team A is trying to catch up late in the fourth quarter. After a running play, B1 intentionally lays on the runner to prevent him from getting up. Ruling 6: In NFHS, the officials should stop the clock when B1 fails to unpile. That is a five-yard penalty for delay of game (3-6-2b) and the clock next starts on the snap. In NCAA, the referee may order the clock to stop when B1 fails to unpile. There is no foul, but the clock next starts on the snap (3-4-3).

After a penalty is enforced for an illegal forward pass to conserve time, the clock next starts on the ready, even if the pass is incomplete (NFHS 3-4-6; NCAA 3-2-5a-8). That keeps team A from getting the benefit of stopping the clock after committing an illegal act.

In NCAA, the clock starts on the snap when team A is penalized for delay and it is in scrimmage-kick formation (3-2-5a-4). Referee’s judgment is not involved. For NFHS, the clock always starts on the snap after a delay of game penalty is accepted (3-4-3i). In the rare case a delay penalty is declined, the clock starts on the ready if the clock was running when the delay occurred.

When a fumble goes out of bounds in advance of the spot of the fumble, the clock is stopped when the ball  touches out of bounds. In NCAA, the game clock next starts on the referee’s signal (3-2-5a-11). The rule applies only to team A fumbles. In NFHS, the clock next starts on the snap regardless of which team fumbled the ball forward and out of bounds (3-4-3a).

Written by Judson Howard, a retired official from Los Angeles. He officiated more than 20 years, many at the NCAA Division I level.

Football: The Right (Tri)angle

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By George Demetriou

Safe, fair and fun.

That phrase — that triangle, if you will — contains the ingredients to the best game you’ll ever have. And there is no reason why almost all your games cannot be like that. You have complete control over the first two items. Only you can allow an unsafe or biased game to be played. The third item is by no means a certainty, but is also well within your control. Unfortunately, there will be days when, despite your best efforts, joy will evaporate due to factors outside your control.

Safety. That is clearly the number-one priority for any game at any level, professional or amateur. The protection and welfare of players are paramount; there can be no compromise on that point. Never let an unsafe act take place.

What we can debate is what constitutes an unsafe act. A local official once caused a game to be cancelled because many of the players of the visiting team had wrestling pads on their knees. The oversized cushions were securely fastened, but partially exposed outside the pants. The rules require knee pads to be covered by the pants. In other situations, missing goalpost pads can be worked around; missing mouthpieces cannot.

“Err on the side of safety.” No one would dare attack that vaunted cliché. Well, I at least propose another viewpoint. While that certainly is sound advice, it sometimes becomes an excuse for justifying poor decision-making. Safety is embodied in many of the “when in doubt” principles. Those include: The contact is below the waist for blocking below the waist and blocks in the back; the contact is at the knees or below for chop blocks; and it is twisting, turning or pulling the facemask rather than merely a grasp.

For illustrative purposes, let’s focus on the last item. The defender starts an arm tackle; the runner spins and turns as he lowers his head, surprising his opponent. The defender suddenly finds his hand on the runner’s facemask and immediately recognizes he cannot tackle with that hand. He slides his hand to the runner’s arm and is able to complete the tackle. Out comes the flag. The explanation, “He may not have twisted the facemask, but I erred on the side of safety.”

Twisted? Get serious; he didn’t even grab the facemask; the hand and the facemask weren’t in contact long enough for a grab to occur, but the official who anticipated a foul had an impulsive reaction and went for his flag. He probably recognized his mistake before the flag hit the ground, but now he is going to defend his inexcusable mistake by presenting himself as an avid protector of players.

Fairness. Officials are hired to assure equity in games. Arbiters disinterested in who wins and who loses are necessary to ensure the game is played fairly according to the rules and that neither team gains an unfair advantage.

The average high school game has about 11 accepted penalties. There will be games with triple that number of fouls. Either the players don’t want to follow the rules or their physical limitations prevent them from doing so. When that happens, all the officials can do is call what they see. When the fouls are excessively high, it won’t be a perfect game; it’s virtually impossible to catch everything when the transgressions are rampant. The accusation that the officials are one-sided is likely to follow. There might even be accusations of cheating.

One of the traps coaches try to draw officials into is an imbalanced foul count. “You’ve flagged us 10 times and them only once.” So what? More important is: Were the fouls legitimate? The losing team might foul more because it is outmanned, but perhaps the winning team is fouling more because it is playing aggressively and succeeding. Coaches often view the foul count in the latter case as an effort by the officials to keep the game competitive.

Fun. Working prep games is both a business endeavor and a social club. Those who do it only for “beer” money, or those who use game income as a second job to support their livelihood, are bound to cause problems because their goals as well as their needs will conflict with the core model of high school officiating. Officiating prep games is purposefully designed as an avocation.

Part of having fun is the knowledge the job is being done right and doing it right means being properly prepared; that requires an effort. The camaraderie needs to take place mostly after the game. Perhaps the true enjoyment of officiating is making a significant contribution to a large group. Simply being on the field should be an enjoyable experience, but there are many detractors such as lopsided scores, bickering players and whining coaches. Those must be managed; officials must be aware of brooding confrontations and act to deter them.

Many associations have officials with a misplaced sense of humor. Any acts or commentary that detract from officiating the game should not be tolerated. Here’s an example: A referee threw his flag and while he was announcing the penalty, the umpire picked up the flag and put it in his pocket. The referee held up the game while checking with both benches to see who had picked up his flag. It was not returned to him until after the game.

George Demetriou has been a football official since 1968. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Football – Stay Away From the Mechanics Buffet

Stick to the Manuals to Ensure Consistency

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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.

Referee Magazine(This article was published in the 07/08 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Feature – Catch This If You Can

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It’s a question fans have debated for years: What’s the hardest thing to do in sports? Hit a baseball? Shoot par in golf? Score a goal in ice hockey? Drive a race car?

Now, there’s another possibility: determining what’s a catch in football.

The challenge is greatest in the NFL, as evidenced by several high-profile plays in recent seasons that have led to head-scratching, outright outrage and rulebook tweaks. Still, the question persists: What’s a catch?

As John Branch of the New York Times wrote, “Where once the catch was football’s version of obscenity — we know it when we see it — it became a play to be dissected from all angles and the slowest possible speeds.”

In other words, paralysis by analysis.

“That’s a good way to put it, but I don’t think the rule is all that complicated,” explained Rogers Redding, CFO national coordinator of football officials. “I think the fact that we can slow everything down now and see a blade of grass up to a gnat’s eyelash has made it more difficult to understand.”

The advent of replay as an officiating tool and advances in technology have helped fuel the debate. “I would say the catch/no catch is in the top two or three for reviews, instant replays and stoppages of the game,” Redding said. “The big ones are scoring plays. Did the ball break the plane of the goalline? Was the ball fumbled? And catch/no catch.”

But as Redding noted, “sometimes it’s all (of those situations) on one play.”

Add the remarkable talents of today’s athletes and you have a mix that often results in confusion and controversy.

Although when it was introduced, replay was not universally embraced by officials, it has become their best friend. “I used to tell the men, ‘Look, if you make a mistake on the field on Sunday afternoon and it’s corrected, you’ll feel a lot better than me making a phone call to you on Tuesday and chewing you out because you blew the call,’” said Art McNally, NFL director of officiating from 1968-91. “Replay has been a help to the officials because the real, real tough catch can be ruled complete or incomplete. That’s the beauty of replay.”

The catch/no catch rule continues to be a hot-button topic among fans, players, coaches and administrators. In fact, the NFL convened a gathering of former and current receivers last winter to discuss the league’s catch rules and to determine whether the rule language needed to be tweaked.

“We had two groups come in,” said Dean Blandino, NFL vice president of officiating, at a meeting of NFL owners in March. “(We invited) former players Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Randy Moss, Steve Largent and Chad Lewis. And we reached out to current players. Jordy Nelson joined us. And then we had a group of former head coaches, front office people and game officials.

The consensus was the rule was adequate (although the 2016 NFL rulebook does include new language that attempts to clarify the rule). “We have to continue to use video and show examples and teach and educate, not just for the media and fans but the coaches and our players and game officials,” Blandino said.

Catch-This-If-You-Can-Photos

Big Games, Big Calls

One of the NFL’s most famous pass plays, involving Tampa Bay receiver Bert Emmanuel in the playoffs following the 1999 season, resulted in a rule change. The St. Louis Rams were leading, 11-6, with 51 seconds remaining when Tampa Bay quarterback Shawn King hit a diving Emmanuel for an apparent 12-yard gain on a second-and-23 play. However the play was reviewed by referee Bill Carollo. When he noticed that the ball made contact with the turf, Carollo overturned the call. Following two incomplete passes, the Rams took possession and ran out the clock.

“Jerry Markbreit was my replay person, probably the most respected official in the country, and he stopped (the game),” Carollo recalled. “We talked about it and it was clear-cut the ball touched the ground. We ruled it as a trap, that it touched the ground.”

If the same play happened today, Emmanuel would be credited with a catch as the NFL changed the rule before the next season. “From that point on, we allowed the ball to touch the ground, but you had to maintain control,” Carollo explained. “We said ‘OK, if this play happens again, and he doesn’t lose control, we’re going to give him a catch even though it touched the ground.’ So that caused the first rule change and we’ve been trying to tweak what a catch is ever since.”

The controversy surrounding that overturn quickly became personal. Following the contest, Carollo and Markbreit received telephoned death threats. Carollo had to take his children out of school for a few days.

“It was controversial but we were comfortable with that decision,” Carollo said. “To the credit of the NFL, they made a rule change. They thought it probably would be better if that type of play is a catch.

“We were pretty strict … don’t let it hit the ground,” he continued. “Now we’re letting it hit the ground, but don’t lose control. Now we’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt if we feel you’re a runner. That’s true judgment. You can say common sense, but it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. Did he really have it long enough?”

Still another memorable play came in the 2006 NFL playoffs, when the Pittsburgh Steelers upset the Indianapolis Colts. With 5:26 remaining, Troy Polamalu made an apparent diving interception of a Peyton Manning pass, tumbled with it and got up to run. As he rose, Polamalu juggled the ball, but he recovered and was credited with a catch. Colts’ coach Tony Dungy challenged the call. Referee Pete Morelli overturned the call via replay and the Colts maintained possession.

Catch-This-If-You-Can-QuoteThe following day, the NFL announced that Morelli should have let the call on the field stand. Mike Pereira, then the league’s vice president of officiating, said in a statement, “(Polamalu) maintained possession long enough to establish a catch. Therefore, the replay review should have upheld the call on the field that it was a catch.”

Unfortunately, rule changes did not prove to be nirvana. Early in the 2010 season, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson appeared to score the winning touchdown late in a game at Chicago. Johnson leapt, grabbed the ball and came to the ground in the end zone. As Johnson rose, the ball slipped out of his grasp momentarily and replay overturned the call.

A play in the 2014 playoffs is still being debated. Dallas receiver Dez Bryant made an acrobatic play to seemingly catch a pass inside the Green Bay one yardline. But upon rolling over onto his chest, the ball eluded Bryant’s hand. Once again, replay changed the call from catch to no catch.

“When you go to the ground to make the catch you have to hold on to (the ball) throughout that entire process,” Blandino said. “When Dez hits the ground with his left arm, the ball hits the ground.”

A Definite Definition?

So exactly what is a catch?

“The easiest way I can describe the rule is control plus two feet plus time,” Blandino said. “Once we get there (control plus two feet), then we get into the gray area of time.”

The concept of time first showed up in the rulebook in 1938, it was clarified in 1942 and it’s been the basic foundation of the rule since, he explained. “The rulebook definition of time is ‘have the ball long enough to clearly become a runner.’ So what does that mean? That means you have the ability to ward off, avoid contact by a defender and advance the football. That was previously defined as ‘performing an act common to the game.’

“What the time element does is allow the onfield official to rule the bang-bang play incomplete and be more consistent,” Blandino said. “And what we refer to as a bang-bang play is control plus two feet and contact that occurs simultaneous or almost simultaneous (with arrival of the ball). The key part of the rule allows for greater consistency on the field because slow motion replay distorts that time element on the field. Now we’re debating, ‘Did he have it long enough or did he not?’”

High school’s definition of a catch was tweaked in 2013 to address a situation in which a player with a grasp on the ball was pushed or carried out of bounds before coming to the ground. But even with that change, it’s a far simpler rule.

According to the NFHS rulebook, “A catch is the act of establishing player possession of a live ball which is in flight, and first contacting the ground inbounds while maintaining possession of the ball or having the forward progress of the player in possession stopped while the opponent is carrying the player who is in possession and inbounds.”

If you’re thinking that it takes someone with an advanced physics degree to rule on catches, take comfort in knowing even those close to the game aren’t 100 percent certain. Carollo, who is the coordinator of football officials for a consortium of collegiate conferences that includes the Big Ten, gets a small dose of satisfaction when he asks for coaches’ opinions of controversial plays.

“I always take those tough plays, put them on video,” Carollo explained. “I give them the same angle that the covering onfield official has and tell the coaches, ‘OK, you vote. Tell me, is this a catch? Is this a touchdown?’ And they go, ‘Whoa, this is really tough.’”

In his meeting with NFL owners, Blandino admitted as much. “We’re ultimately going to have plays that look like a catch but isn’t by definition of a rule,” he said. “And most often, those are the plays in which a receiver hits the ground with the ball, bobbles it, then it eventually squirts loose.”

Last year, apparent touchdowns involving the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert and Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman were ruled incomplete because they lost a grip on the ball as they were going to the ground. Both calls caused uproars. Eifert’s touchdown was overturned on a fourth-and-one play from Baltimore’s two yardline when he lunged for the goalline. The ball broke the plane of the goalline, but he lost the ball when he hit the ground.

“When we talk about going to the ground, again, it’s control plus two feet plus time,” Blandino said. “If I don’t have that while upright and I’m going to the ground, the standard becomes, hold on to the ball when you land. 

Catch-This-If-You-Can-End-Zone“If he’s not a runner before going to the ground,” Blandino continued, “the requirement becomes, again, survive the ground. So if you’re not a runner prior to going to the ground in the process of making that catch, you must maintain control when you land.”

Carollo agreed. “That’s one of our most difficult calls — understanding exactly when the player transitions from a receiver to a runner,” he said. “It sounds simple. You know what a runner is when he’s going up the middle (on a running play), but (on a pass play) I’m saying there’s a split second of time when you’re not a receiver anymore and now you become a runner.”

“There are many times when a ruling on the field will stand, but we’re not making it a definitive declaration that it’s either a catch or not a catch,” Blandino explained. “We’re saying the evidence doesn’t allow us to make a definitive ruling.”

More Than Catch/No Catch

Making the catch/no catch rule even more difficult to understand is its correlation to another key rule: targeting.

“That’s an important point,” Carollo said. “Everyone loses sight of that. You’re always going to be a receiver and you have to hang on to the ball, but if you catch it, turn and make a football move, change your direction, reach for the goalline, reach for a first down — something other than the process of the catch — we can put you into a runner category. The problem is, if we transition you from a receiver to a runner you lose your protection for targeting (for a high hit).”

“This rule is directly tied to the defenseless player rule,” Blandino added. “So the amount of time required to gain possession is the same amount of time you’re protected as a defenseless receiver. If we shorten that time to gain possession, we’re shortening the time the player is protected from hits to the head and neck area.”

You might say that’s another catch in the rules.

George Hammond is a veteran football official from York, Pa.

Referee Magazine(This feature was published in the 09/16 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Football – Short, Simple and Complete

By Jon Bible

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Done Right, Onfield Meetings Can Be Effective

Much has been written and said about the importance of perception in officiating. Image is everything, as the saying goes and that is true not only of the officials comprising a crew but the crew as a whole. Little things that crews do and fail to do can create in the minds of coaches, players and observers the belief that the crew is in command of things — or conversely, confused and perhaps in over its head.

One thing that football crews often do that can foster a negative impression is to have conferences that go on too long or involve officials with nothing useful to offer. How many times have you seen games in which multiple officials converge to discuss what may be something as simple as a false start and to prolong the discussion to the point that everyone gets antsy? To be sure, when more than one official has a flag down on a play, all of the calling officials must get together to compare notes; what I’m talking about are crew conferences when only the referee and calling official need to be involved, crew conferences that are needed but involve five people when only three have something meaningful to contribute and meetings that go on endlessly because those involved are talking over each other, too excited and the like.

If, for example, only the head linesman has a false start before the snap, he can quickly communicate that to the referee and umpire, the umpire can immediately march off the penalty and the referee can give the signal and, if applicable, microphone announcement. There doesn’t need to be any preliminary signal by the referee or any other officials involved in the discussion; in fact, there really doesn’t need to be much discussion at all. The procedure in college ball is for the linesman to give the referee a visual false start signal, which the umpire will see; all the referee needs is the player’s number (if he doesn’t already know it) and then makes an announcement while the umpire marks off the five yards. Bing, bang, done. If others besides the linesman have a flag down, they will converge with the referee and the umpire to determine whether it is a false start or defense in the neutral zone (offside). But again, they do their thing and get on with it.

The same thing applies no matter the foul(s) and number of officials with flags. We need to be sure that everyone understands what has been called and what the enforcement is, but we do it expeditiously and without officials with no flags down involved in the discussion.

If it is appropriate at whatever level you work for calling officials to give visual signals, it sure can help the referee to get things clarified and enforced with alacrity. One example is the one above, in which the linesman has a false start; his giving me the visual signal eliminates the need for a lengthy discussion. If a deep official has defensive pass interference and, after he throws his flag, he gives me the appropriate signal and points to the defense, the tumblers of my mind start immediately working. As I run downfield to meet him I already know what he has called and I can calculate whether the foul is a spot foul or we will enforce the 15 yards (because that is how interference is enforced under NCAA rules). That eliminates a lot of talk and possible confusion, saves a ton of time and helps us to look crisp and in control.

In line with that, I do not give options to the captain if the choice is clear. That wastes time. If, for example, the offense gains six yards on a running play so that it will be third and four, but there is holding in the backfield, no consultation is needed to know the defense wants the penalty enforced. Once I get the foul and its location and the number of the fouling player — the umpire will know that as he will be with me when the calling official reports that information — the umpire enforces the penalty and I give the announcement. NFHS mechanics don’t allow for that lack of consultation, but the idea is be as brief as possible.

Being thorough but expeditious helps to move the game along and creates the impression that the crew is on top of things. Contrast that with the situation in which there is a lot of discussion involving a lot of people. The referee starts to leave and do something but  then he returns and there is more discussion, with officials pointing here, there and yonder until finally something is done. The reality may be that the crew knows what it is doing, but the perception will be otherwise and there can be a snowball effect with doubts cast on things the crew does or calls down the line.

Lest anyone misunderstand, let me stress that I am not advocating speed at the expense of accuracy. Sometimes conferences are necessary and it will take a while to sort things out. Ultimately, our goal has to be to get things right. I am simply saying that multi-official conferences should be held only when they are necessary; they should be reasonable in length, meaning that everyone who talks must do so calmly; and they should not involve officials with nothing to offer. If you don’t have a flag down or something meaningful to offer, stay out of it.

Having said all of that, it is essential to ensure that all of the pieces of the puzzle are put together at one time and before the referee does anything. Last season our crew had a game that began with an onside kick. On the goalline, I saw a flag from the back judge and then saw the side judge point to indicate that the receivers recovered the kick. The back judge told me he had offside on the kickers; the side judge told me he pointed the wrong way and the kickers recovered. Fine. I announced the penalty, noted there would be a rekick and ran back to the goalline. Tweet, tweet! In comes the field judge to ask why, if the receivers recovered, we’re not adding the penalty to the spot of the recovery. I told him the side judge pointed the wrong way and the kickers recovered. Off goes the field judge, only to tweet, tweet and come running in again to ask whether the kick went 10 yards or the receivers should get it at the spot of illegal touching. That meant I had to get the side judge involved to ask him about that; he said it did go 10 yards.

When we finally rekicked, with 14:55 on the clock in the first quarter, we had pretty well convinced the two coaches that we had no clue what we were doing. The Keystone Cops looked more organized and in command than we did.

First, kudos to the field judge. My rule is that even if you’re the one guy on the crew who thinks something is not right, stop the game and ask the question, for you may save the entire crew from disaster. But my main point is that we did not take our time from the start to be sure we had all the necessary information assembled and that all of us were on the same page before anyone enforced or announced anything. The play was a little confusing andthere was a lot going on, but there is no excuse for it having led to all of the discussions, meetings, etc., that ensued.

The next time you work a game, spend time in the pregame discussing the notion of having conferences only if clearly needed, limiting them to the people with relevant input to offer, having people talk calmly and not over one another and ensuring that discussions end with all pieces of the puzzle put together and all crew members singing from the same song sheet. Handling business in an expeditious, crisp and organized fashion will go a long way toward creating the impression that the crew knows what it, is doing, which can save its bacon when the tough times come.

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.

Referee Magazine(This article was published in the 04/08 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Football – Hesitation May Not Lead to Aggravation

Tips on how to react to post-play skirmishes

Hesitation-May-Not-Lead-to-Aggravation

By George Demetriou

Whether it’s dry or wet, artificial or natural, the surface on which the game is played can have a marked influence on how the game is played and on specific plays. Muddy fields favor the running game. Many believe a slick field helps the players on offense because they know where they are going, while the defense doesn’t. When a runner slips and goes down by rule, no one credits the ground with the tackle. Instead, the closest defender gets the stat. There are several scenarios, though, in which the ground can be a factor.

The ground cannot cause a fumble. That’s an oft-spoken phrase in football. Actually the ground can cause a fumble under NCAA and NFHS rules even though there is no requirement for a runner to be down by contact. It would, however, be a very rare occurrence.

The veracity of that phrase lies in the fact that, 99.9 percent of the time, when the ball is freed from the runner’s grip as it hits the ground, the ball is already dead. It is dead because a part of the runner’s body other than a hand or foot had touched the ground before the ball touched the ground. That body part might be a knee, the side of a thigh or the forearm. Contact with the ground by any of those body parts causes the ball to become dead. Forward progress is marked at the foremost point of the ball when the contact with the ground occurred.

So how can the ground cause a fumble? While in a runner’s  possession, the ball contacts the ground before any part of the runner’s body other than a hand or foot, and that contact causes the runner to lose control of the ball, then indeed the ground has “caused” a fumble. As you can imagine it would be a most unusual play. The runner would have to either stumble and try to use the ball to regain his balance, he could “lay out” or be flipped heels over head, so that the ball contacts the ground before the rest of the runner’s body, other than perhaps, the free hand.

The ground can cause an incomplete pass. Catching a ball involves more than simply gaining control of it. It means gaining possession of the ball in flight and first coming to the ground inbounds (NFHS 2-4-1; NCAA 2-2-7). If an airborne player receives the ball and lands so his first contact is inbounds, he has caught the ball. Barring contact by an opponent, if the first contact is out of bounds, there is no catch and the pass is incomplete. If a player controls the ball while airborne, but loses possession when he lands, there is no catch. Thus, the ground can cause an incomplete pass.

One fairly common scenario is a player who gains control of a ball in flight while he is in mid-air. He then comes to the ground with a foot just inside the sideline and falls to the ground out of bounds. When the player contacts the ground, the ball pops out from his hands. That may occur either with or without the ball contacting the ground.

Some will argue that is a completed pass because the catch was completed when his foot touched the ground. Admittedly, the player has certainly complied with the exact requirements of the rule, but the key is “possession.” While it appeared to the eye that the player gained possession of the ball, the fact that the ball came loose upon contact with the ground is proof the player did not have sufficient control to satisfy the rule. That sort of qualifies as “evidence after the fact,” but that’s what the rule requires.

That principle applies regardless of where the airborne receiver comes to the ground: out of bounds, inbounds, in the middle of the field or the end zone. In the preceding scenario, the play did not end when the receiver’s foot touched the ground inbounds — the ball remained live. Such a play ends when the receiver touches out of bounds and, as described, the ball becomes loose at the time it is to be declared dead.

Let’s take the same airborne receiver and have him gain control between the hashmarks above the end zone. He then comes to the ground in the following sequence: first foot, second foot, hip, back. The ball pops free when his back contacts the turf. Is that a catch? One argument can be that not only was the catch complete when the first foot touched the ground, but the ball was dead because it was in the end zone. Again, failure to maintain control of the ball until the player has completely come to the ground indicates that the rule requiring possession was not satisfied. The result is an incomplete pass.

The ground cannot commit a personal foul. Perhaps that’s not as widely known as the first two phrases, but it’s certainly valid. That phrase was probably coined by Randy Campbell of the Mountain West Conference. Randy uses that phrase to encourage officials not to stare down at the ground after a play ends (a common fault among prep officials, especially when marking the progress spot). Dead-ball fouls, especially at a sideline, are almost always formulated in the mind of the perpetrator while the ball is live and executed within three seconds after the ball becomes dead.

In order for a late hit to occur, the potential offender must be in proximity of an opponent. Piling on or late hits near the runner are relatively easy to catch because officials tend to watch the player with the ball. Fouls away from the play are more difficult, but only because some crews are not disciplined to keep all 22 players in view after the play ends. It’s not difficult to maintain vigilance for three seconds and it is a key component ofgood dead-ball officiating.

Of course, dead-ball fouls can occur after the threesecond vigilance period. Opponents may begin the dead-ball interval with verbal jousting that escalates to physical confrontation. The syllables themselves may constitute taunting. Officials should monitor all bantering among opponents. If opponents remain near each other after a play ends, there is a potential problem and the nearest official should close in and let his presence be known. In many cases that will be enough to deter any extracurricular activity.

A common distraction to dead-ball officiating is the ball itself. Some officials incorrectly make chasing the ball their first priority after the play ends. That task should be left to the ball boys if the ball has gone outside the sideline and to the players if it remains on the field. It is OK if the game is momentarily delayed while the ball is retrieved. The teams will eventuallyget into the routine of taking care of the unneeded ball.

If necessary and the circumstances permit, an official can fetch the ball once all players have started to return to their huddle or a new position.

Written by George Demetriou. A football official since 1968, he lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Referee Magazine(This article was published in the 03/08 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Football – Well Grounded in the Rules

How the Turf Can Influence the Game

Football-Well-Grounded-in-the-Rules

Whether it’s dry or wet, artificial or natural, the surface on which the game is played can have a marked influence on how the game is played and on specific plays.

Muddy fields favor the running game. Many believe a slick field helps the players on offense because they know where they are going, while the defense doesn’t. When a runner slips and goes down by rule, no one credits the ground with the tackle. Instead, the closest defender gets the stat. There are several scenarios, though, in which the ground can be a factor.

The ground cannot cause a fumble. That’s an oft-spoken phrase in football. Actually the ground can cause a fumble under NCAA and NFHS rules even though there is no requirement for a runner to be down by contact. It would, however, be a very rare occurrence.

The veracity of that phrase lies in the fact that, 99.9 percent of the time, when the ball is freed from the runner’s grip as it hits the ground, the ball is already dead. It is dead because a part of the runner’s body other than a hand or foot had touched the ground before the ball touched the ground. That body part might be a knee, the side of a thigh or the forearm. Contact with the ground by any of those body parts causes the ball to become dead. Forward progress is marked at the foremost point of the ball when the contact with the  ground occurred.

So how can the ground cause a fumble? While in a runner’s possession, the ball contacts the ground before any part of the runner’s body other than a hand or foot, and that contact causes the runner to lose control of the ball, then indeed the ground has “caused” a fumble. As you can imagine it would be a most unusual play. The runner would have to either stumble and try to use the ball to regain his balance, he could “lay out” or be flipped heels over head, so that the ball contacts the ground before the rest of the runner’s body, other than perhaps, the free hand.

The ground can cause an incomplete pass. Catching a ball involves more than simply gaining control of it. It means gaining possession of the ball in flight and first coming to the ground inbounds (NFHS 2-4-1; NCAA 2-2-7). If an airborne player receives the ball and lands so his first contact is inbounds, he has caught the ball. Barring contact by an opponent, if the first contact is out of bounds, there is no catch and the pass is incomplete. If a player controls the ball while airborne, but loses possession when he lands, there is no catch. Thus, the ground can cause an incomplete pass.

One fairly common scenario is a player who gains control of a ball in flight while he is in mid-air. He then comes to the ground with a foot just inside the sideline and falls to the ground out of bounds. When the player contacts the ground, the ball pops out from his hands. That may occur either with or without the ball contacting the ground.

Some will argue that is a completed pass because the catch was completed when his foot touched the ground. Admittedly, the player has certainly complied with the exact requirements of the rule, but the key is “possession.” While it appeared to the eye that the player gained possession of the ball, the fact that the ball came loose upon contact with the ground is proof the player did not have sufficient control to satisfy the rule. That sort of qualifies as “evidence after the fact,” but that’s what the rule requires.

That principle applies regardless of where the airborne receiver comes to the ground: out of bounds, inbounds, in the middle of the field or the end zone. In the preceding scenario, the play did not end when the receiver’s foot touched the ground inbounds — the ball remained live. Such a play ends when the receiver touches out of bounds and, as described, the ball becomes loose at the time it is to be declared dead.

Let’s take the same airborne receiver and have him gain control between the hashmarks above the end zone. He then comes to the ground in the following sequence: first foot, second foot, hip, back. The ball pops free when his back contacts the turf. Is that a catch? One argument can be that not only was the catch complete when the first foot touched the ground, but the ball was dead because it was in the end zone. Again, failure to maintain control of the ball until the player has completely come to the ground indicates that the rule requiring possession was not satisfied. The result is an incomplete pass.

The ground cannot commit a personal foul. Perhaps that’s not as widely known as the first two phrases, but it’s certainly valid. That phrase was probably coined by Randy Campbell of the Mountain West Conference. Randy uses that phrase to encourage officials not to stare down at the ground after a play ends (a common fault among prep officials, especially when marking the progress spot). Dead-ball fouls, especially at a sideline, are almost always formulated in the mind of the perpetrator while the ball is live and executed within three seconds after the ball becomes dead.

In order for a late hit to occur, the potential offender must be in proximity of an opponent. Piling on or late hits near the runner are relatively easy to catch because officials tend to watch the player with the ball. Fouls away from the play are more difficult, but only because some crews are not disciplined to keep all 22 players in view after the play ends. It’s not difficult to maintain vigilance for three seconds and it is a key component of good dead-ball officiating.

Of course, dead-ball fouls can occur after the threesecond vigilance period. Opponents may begin the dead-ball interval with verbal jousting that escalates to physical confrontation. The syllables themselves may constitute taunting. Officials should monitor all bantering among opponents. If opponents remain near each other after a play ends, there is a potential problem and the nearest official should close in and let his presence be known. In many cases that will be enough to deter any extracurricular activity.

A common distraction to dead-ball officiating is the ball itself. Some officials incorrectly make chasing the ball their first priority after the play ends. That task should be left to the ball boys if the ball has gone outside the sideline and to the players if it remains on the field. It is OK if the game is momentarily delayed while the ball is retrieved. The teams will eventually get into the routine of taking care of the unneeded ball.

If necessary and the circumstances permit, an official can fetch the ball once all players have started to return to their huddle or a new position.

Written by George Demetriou. A football official since 1968, he lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Referee Magazine(This article was published in the 03/08 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Football – A One and a Two and a …

How to Set and Maintain a Good Tempo

A-One-and-a-Two-and-a

By Jon Bible

Before a game last season, while the rest of the officials on my crew were on the field handling their pregame duties, I was visiting with my TV liaison. He had watched a high school game the night before and was appalled at its poor tempo. He opined that one aspect of creating a positive image and establishing confidence and credibility that could stand more attention was tempo — crew members, and the crew as a whole, maintaining a smooth and consistent rhythm and pace throughout the game.

I think the first step in ensuring a good flow to things is establishing a time frame for pregame crew matters and sticking with it. Has the game time and site been confirmed? Do the crew members know that information?

Where and when will they meet and how will they travel to the site? Who is responsible for handling what parts of the pregame? Where will it be held, when will it start and roughly how long will it last?

Officials tend to be antsy before a game, and the more confused and uncertain things are, the more one’s comfort level decreases, which can seriously impair onfield performance. To prevent that, the crew chief cannot leave things to chance. Rather, he must ensure that everyone knows in advance what they and the others will be doing and when they will do it, then adhere to the script and insist that others do so. Depending on how things work in your area, part of that may be ensuring that the school or game manager has been contacted and advised of when the crew will arrive.

If some or all officials have defined pregame duties, they need to be carried out in an orderly and timely manner. In the Big 12 Conference, for example, there is a set time when the umpire and I are to meet with the coaches, the ball boys meet with the side and field judges, the game and 25-second clock operators meet with the back judge, the head linesman meets with the chain crew and the referee microphone is to be delivered to the dressing room and an onfield mic check is done. The crew goes on the field in shifts to monitor team behavior and compliance with uniform policies. It is essential that those things are done per the prescribed time frame, and I will notify our boss if something goes awry. For example, if the umpire and I go too early to find the home coach before the game (an hour and 15 minutes before game time is the scheduled time), it can be off-putting to him. That in turn can affect how things go when the game gets started.

Once the game starts, the referee is in charge of setting its tempo. A vital part of that is having a set rhythm in marking the ball ready for play. If that is done too quickly, the offense may not be able to communicate its next play and get the right personnel in. If it is done too slowly, things drag. Worst of all, if it is done inconsistently, no one knows what to expect and things get out of kilter.

A-One-and-a-Two-and-a-ScreenshotMental count. I make a practice of mentally counting after the play ends before I blow the whistle to mark the ball ready for play. If the previous play is a run up the middle, meaning the umpire will likely spot the ball quickly, I count to 10. If it is a play in the side zone or an incomplete pass, it will take a few seconds to relay the ball in to the umpire, so I count to eight. The goal is to be consistent and blow the ready 18 seconds after each play ends.

I’ve experimented with counting to four, five, seven, etc. Last season I went to eight to 10 seconds, and that seems to work well. Part of my calculation involves the fact that my umpire spots the ball a few seconds quicker than most umpires. To compensate, I need to be a tad slower in blowing the ready than other referees. For whatever reason you may find that counting to a different number works better, but the important thing is to count to some number. If you do, you will be consistent throughout the game and the teams will quickly adapt to, and get in step with, your pace in marking the ball ready. That will go a long way toward ensuring a smooth flow to the game. You don’t need to wait the full eight to 10 seconds if the offense goes to the line and it is apparent they are ready to go. In fact, if you do wait, you can cause problems by keeping them from getting the snap off as quickly as they’d like. In a hurry-up offense with the clock running, you want to be sure that the crew is in position and the players are on the proper side of the line of scrimmage. But you need to be consistent in marking the ball ready and not get in too much of a hurry. If you do, you will hurt the offense if you wait the normal amount of time for the ready. When everyone is set, get things going.

Another aspect of tempo is how the crew moves on the field. Sometimes an official has to bust his rear to get to where he needs to be, but most of the time we can glide seemingly effortlessly to our proper position. A crew can seem “not ready for prime time” if its members are running around like chickens with their heads cut off instead of operating in “cruise control,” as former NFL Director of Officiating Jerry Seeman used to call it.

When a play ends in midfield, the wing officials don’t need to come racing in — unless the goalline or line-to-gain is threatened — but instead can simply take a few steps forward to give the umpire the proper spot. Staying back also gives the wing officials a wider field of vision, which is helpful in dead-ball officiating. Also, when a play ends, it is counterproductive to have multiple officials converging on the dead-ball spot. The crew should use the “ring” concept, with the covering official watching the immediate pile of players (and not getting so close to the pile that he can’t see the “big picture”). The next-nearest officials watch action in the ring around the pile and the other officials look at the remainder of the field. In sum, cruise control not only creates the perception that the crew knows what it is doing, but it also results in better field coverage.

Penalty enforcement has a vital tempo aspect. It can be done expeditiously while losing nothing in terms of accuracy. There is, for example, no need to have a crew conference on a simple false start. The referee should confirm that it is a false start, get the player’s number, give the signal (and make the announcement if applicable) and get on with it. Although they are sometimes necessary, crew conferences create the perception of uncertainty and detract from the overall flow of the game. In my experience in watching games, there are generally far too many confabs. If you don’t have something constructive to offer to the discussion, stay away. In addition, precious time is lost when the referee needlessly gives a preliminary signal (on a false start or delay of game, for example) or walks 10, 15 or 20 yards away to give the signal on a foul.

Ballhandling. The crew’s ball mechanics involve tempo. The ball should be carefully relayed from one official to the next, taking care to ensure that it can be caught chest-high and will not be dropped. Nothinglooks sloppier than balls bouncing around the field because they were hastily or inaccurately thrown. The game flow is disrupted when officials have to chase balls that have bounced several yards away.

When the play ends, don’t be too quick to get the ball or to look for a new one from a ball boy; be sure that there are no dead-ball fouls or other problems, get a ball in a cruise-control manner, then calmly and deliberately relay it in. Try to do so in the same manner and pace throughout the game.

Finally, be conscious of the time between quarters, after trys or field goals, during halftime and during timeouts. If the rule says that X amount of time is to be allotted, have someone on the crew track it to be sure that no more or less is granted. When everyone is lollygagging around and timeouts and halftimes stretch several seconds (or minutes) beyond the allotted time, any semblance of game tempo is destroyed.

Pay attention to tempo before and during a game, and your performance, and the extent to which others perceive you as capable and in control will be greatly enhanced. Jon Bible is a veteran football official from Austin, Texas. He is a referee in the Big 12 Conference.

Referee Magazine(This article was published in the 02/12 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Football – Hands Off! When Ineligibles Touch A Pass

Hands-Off-When-Ineligibles-Touch-A-Pass

By Judson Howard

It is the dream of most offensive linemen to have a chance to run with the ball. In many cases, if possession was obtained after a fumble or muff, the lineman’s fantasy comes true. But if an offensive lineman or other ineligible receiver is first to touch a legal forward pass, the dream becomes a nightmare. It is known as illegal touching.

Illegal touching applies to legal forward passes behind or beyond the line. At the snap, eligible receivers are those in the backfield or on the end of the line with a number 1 to 49 or 80 to 99 (NFHS 7-5-6; NCAA 7-3-3). Interior linemen (regardless of number) and ends or backs numbered 50 to 79 are ineligible at the snap. Unlike the pro game, players numbered 50 to 79 inclusive cannot report to the referee to become eligible receivers.

In NFHS, the penalty for illegal touching is five yards from the basic spot and loss of down (7-5-13 Pen). In NCAA, the penalty is five yards from the previous spot with no loss of down (7-3-11 Pen).

Illegal touching is a positive act. Being touched by the pass is not a foul.

Play 1: First and 10 at team A’s 20 yardline. A forward pass hits guard A1’s back as he is blocking at team A’s 16 yardline. Ruling 1: Even though A1 is an ineligible receiver, there is no foul because A1 did not catch, bat or muff the pass.

If any team B player first touches a legal forward pass, all team A players become eligible (NFHS 7-5-6b; NCAA 7-3-5). In NCAA, a pass first touching an official makes everyone eligible as well.

In NCAA, a receiver can lose eligibility if he voluntarily goes out of bounds and is the first to touch a forward pass inbounds (7-3-4). That illegal touching penalty is loss of down at the previous spot with no loss of yardage. In NFHS, a player who is eligible at the snap remains eligible throughout the down (7-5-6d). Eligibles who go out of bounds on their own and return are guilty of illegal participation (9-6-2). Eligibles who go out of bounds as a result of contact by team B remain eligible if they return inbounds at the first opportunity (NFHS 9-6-1; NCAA 7-3-4 Exc).

Play 3: Eligible receiver A1 (a) is pushed out of bounds by B2, or (b) steps on the sideline. He returns to the field immediately, catches a pass at team A’s 30 yardline and runs into team B’s end zone. Ruling 3: In (a), since A1 was forced out and returned immediately, he remains eligible. The score counts. In (b), A1 is guilty of illegal participation (NFHS) or illegal touching (NCAA). In NFHS, the 15-yard penalty is enforced from the spot of the foul. In NCAA, it is loss of down at the previous spot.

Judson Howard, Los Angeles, officiated more than 20 years, many at the NCAA Division I level. 

Referee Magazine(This article was published in the 04/12 issue of Referee Magazine.)

Feature – Football Clete – Clete Blakeman Biography

Originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Referee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

BY DAVE SIMON

 

CLETE BLAKEMAN’S PERSONALITY HAS WON HIM MANY ADMIRERS. IT’S ALSO HELPED HIM BECOME AN OUTSTANDING NFL CREW CHIEF.

NFL referee Clete Blakeman lights up the room and the field. That’s what his crewmates say about him. Tripp Sutter, a Big Ten official, had a formative experience that brought Clete Blakeman’s unique leadership qualities home. “I was 21 or 22 years old and went to work a game up at Dana College in Blair, Neb.,” he said. “I was asked to sub for the side judge, and it was my second collegiate game ever. Mostly I was working Omaha area high school metro games.”

As Sutter described it, he had concerns about walking into a new environment being both the young guy and the newcomer. Blakeman could have made things awkward for Sutter, kept him at a distance. Instead, the opposite happened.

“With Clete, he has the ability to make you feel like you are the most important person in the room,” Sutter explained. “He has the ‘it’ factor, making you feel welcome. He immediately made me feel like a part of the crew, not like an uncomfortable rookie.”

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A friendship blossomed from that initial meeting, with Blakeman eventually standing up in Sutter’s wedding. “People love being around Clete. He knows who he is, and is comfortable in his own skin,” Sutter added.

On the football field that translates into a genuineness toward his crew, the players and coaches. “He’ll never patronize a coach,” Sutter said. “He listens and lets a coach know he cares, but sometimes that call is just going to go against you. It’s something I use as well — demonstrating that I care by listening and explaining something to a coach, if necessary.”

“He’s the real McCoy,” former NFL crewmate Greg Meyer agreed. Meyer got to know Blakeman when they were officiating in the Big 12 Conference, and they went on to work together in the NFL for five years — Blakeman’s rookie year in 2008, then his first four years as a referee starting in 2010.

The 50-year-old Blakeman, who lives in Omaha, Neb., was named a referee in 2010 after two seasons in the league. He was selected as the alternate referee for Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos in February 2014.

“He’s consistent, classy, confident and inclusive,” Meyer explained. “He’s a good listener, and not dictatorial.

“I admire how he conducts himself,” Meyer continued. As an example, he recalls that Blakeman would have his crewmates put their hands on the football together before they worked each game with the closing comment, “Be a man and be a professional.”


Sports Junkie

Blakeman’s love of sports started it all. He was playing everything in season — football, basketball, track, baseball, golf — as he grew up in Norfolk, Neb. Football became his focus in high school. He went to Norfolk High, eventually becoming the starting quarterback and earning a scholarship to the University of Nebraska.

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In his playing days, Blakeman started two games at quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

 

The irony of his high school career, according to Blakeman, is if he’d had to choose a sport in ninth grade, he would have chosen basketball.

In fall 1983, Blakeman enrolled at Nebraska as a scholarship quarterback, along with three other players at that position. “From Day One, I knew that I’d have to bust my tail — work hard, study hard, commit to do my best,” Blakeman said. “There was extreme competition from the start of fall camp until the end of my college playing days. You either embraced the work ethic or walked away.”

Blakeman found out some things about himself during his time at Nebraska — about his competitive instincts and his willingness to do whatever it took to get on the playing field; qualities that would bode well later in life.

“I fought through a lot of challenges, but it built character,” he said. “Coach (Tom) Osborne helped me in many ways with life lessons, and I can’t give him enough thanks and credit.” As a three-year letterman, Blakeman backed up Steve Taylor during his last two years. Blakeman started two games — one his senior year and one his junior year. The Huskers won both games. Blakeman threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in the 1986 game against Kansas.

“I remember Coach Osborne looking me in the eyes and saying, ‘You’re my starting quarterback this weekend,’” Blakeman recalled. “That was my goal and it became a significant personal achievement for me.”

Tim Millis, the former coordinator of officials in the Big 12 Conference, first met Blakeman on the field when Millis was an official and Blakeman was the backup quarterback. He saw very quickly what made Blakeman special.

“As football officials, we typically talk to the quarterbacks on offense and linebackers on defense,” Millis said. “Clete was (the backup) quarterback for Nebraska in the 1987 Sugar Bowl and at the 1988 Fiesta Bowl. Coincidentally, I worked both those games. You could see his personality and heart were bigger than his size. His teammates looked up to him.”

Millis, who went on to officiate in the NFL, watched Blakeman officiate at the small college level, and ultimately hired him into the Big 12.

“As a quarterback, Clete delivered, and you could recognize those leadership qualities,” Millis said. “He’s never cocky, makes the hard decisions and lets you know. People see and believe in him.”


Hanging Out With Dad

Blakeman said he has his dad, Glen Blakeman, who died last summer just before his 83rd birthday, to thank for starting him in officiating. While it wasn’t an automatic connection for Blakeman, he remembers the little things he picked up from his dad along the way.

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Clete had the opportunity to officiate with his father, the late Glen Blakeman.

 

Glen officiated football and basketball, and was well-known and well-respected throughout northeast Nebraska. When Clete was too young to travel with his father, a weekly ritual developed between the two. Clete became his father’s shoe-shiner. Upon his late-night return home, Glen would set his officiating shoes outside Clete’s door for him to clean and shine the next morning. It was a detail that Clete picked up on — keeping your shoes clean and in good shape was important to how you looked and came across on the field.

“Sometimes they would be all coated with mud and I’d have to bang them around in the tub to get them clean enough to polish. He never paid me though,” Blakeman laughed.

“Officiating was definitely part of our world together,” he continued. “He officiated during the fall and winter and he would drag me along to games each week. It was a big part of my life. It was cool to hang out with my dad and be part of the environment. I’d get to ride along with the guys in the car, and just enjoyed being there. I felt like part of the crew.”

The time spent around other officials slowly rubbed off on Clete, as he developed a great appreciation for the rules and a respect for the game. But he wasn’t thinking about being an official when he was still playing.

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It was after he finished college and was about to begin law school in fall 1988 that Glen suggested that Clete join his football crew. “It gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my dad and expand on my experiences as a kid,” Blakeman said. “The transition was unique. I didn’t know officiating would develop into a true love.”

On Friday afternoons, after Clete was done with law school classes, he would head off from Lincoln to some of the smaller towns in the northeast part of the state — Stanton, Columbus, Fremont, Battle Creek. The team environment felt right to him. Going from an offensive football unit with 10 teammates on the field to another team with three or four officials learning together, developing and with a passion for executing well was something he found appealing. And that has continued.


The Feeling of Arriving

Blakeman does not spend a lot of time reminiscing about games and plays. He enjoys them all and gets something special out of each contest.

Still, he remembers his very first season of officiating with his dad at Seacrest Field in Lincoln. “Wow, this is the big time,” he thought. It was a Class A (largest classification) football game and he felt the rush and adrenaline just like he does today in the NFL.

He went on to work small college football after his first year, officiating NAIA Division II games at such schools as Dana, Doane, Hastings, Concordia and Nebraska Wesleyan. That was his training ground for picking up the feel for college rules. “It was very competitive football,” he remembered.

From there, he gained exposure with several Big 8 (currently Big 12) officials, including Scott Koch, Tom Walker, Scott Gaines, Frank Gaines and Paul Brown. “They’re all great guys who are incredibly dedicated to the profession,” he said.

He began going to higher level meetings, expanding his knowledge of college rules. By then he’d worked four years with his dad, who was retiring from football officiating.

Millis brought Blakeman on board in the Big 12 at that time, and provided more structured evaluation and training.

“He elevated my progress immensely,” Blakeman said. “ I owe a lot to Tim, and had the pleasure to work for him for five years and then with Walt Anderson (current Big 12 coordinator and NFL referee) for two more years after that.

“I was fortunate to be able to work two Big 12 championship games during my years in the conference.”

At each step along the way, Blakeman was thinking about what might come next. So when he reached the Big 12, he began considering what it would take to make it to the NFL.

He worked three years in NFL Europe, then the training ground to get to the NFL, from 2004-06. In 2008 Mike Pereira, then vice president of NFL officiating, hired him into the NFL.

The NFL is “college multiplied by 100,” Blakeman said of the move up to the pros.

“The team concept is the most important thing we have as a crew,” Blakeman said. “It’s not about me. I’m the referee, but the team would be worse if I was just thinking about me. There are nine of us working together on every game — seven on the field and two in replay. Everyone of us has to buy in. Otherwise we fail together.”

Blakeman realizes he must see his crewmates’ strengths and weaknesses. “We all help and support each other,” he said. “It starts with me looking in the mirror and recognizing that I need to lead not only by words but by example, that I need to prepare to perform at the highest level each week. I have extremely high expectations for both myself and our crew. In the end, it’s about how we perform our jobs for those three hours on Sunday. I’m a big advocate of the philosophy that the better we prepare, the better we perform.”


Quiet, Confident Leader

Millis said that Blakeman’s leadership skills played a huge part in his being named a referee after just two years in the league.

“He’s a quiet, confident leader,” Millis said. “He has a unique personality. He’s not a showoff or know-it-all. Some guys in his position get ornery. He’s the opposite.”

Terrence Miles worked with Blakeman in the Big 12, entered the NFL in 2008, along with Blakeman, and worked on his crew from 2010-13. He cited Blakeman’s even-keeled nature as one of his key leadership skills. One of Blakeman’s pet phrases is, “We’ll get it worked out.”

“You know he’s in charge, but he’s not arrogant,” Miles said. “I don’t know how he combines the two qualities, but he does it.

“He deferred to the senior guys on the crew when he started as an NFL referee, learning what he could from each one of them,” Miles continued. “He’s organized about everything, from expenses to discussing issues that other crews around the league are having. He’s on top of all that stuff.

“We had a good group our first year, but there was still a learning curve. If there was a better way to do something, Clete would say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ In his second year, Clete got beat up on his ratings, but you’d never know it. It never affected how he dealt with our crew or the games.”

Meyer agrees. “He’s one of the few guys who, regardless of the game, is the same guy every week,” Meyer said. “He has such a positive outlook; honest and direct. He is what he is.”

Even after a tough game, Meyer said Blakeman retains his disposition, leaving the bad things behind, and getting onto the next game. “He looks at what’s in it for ‘us’ not for ‘him,’ without yelling, screaming or calling you out.”

The crew chief in the NFL has to be the go-to guy and set the tone. “We need more guys like Clete with his type of disposition,” Meyer continued. “I haven’t met an official who wouldn’t want to be on Clete’s crew.”


Family Ties

That genuineness is something his wife Katie appreciates as well. When they met, Katie was immediately struck by how Clete treated others.

“I met this nice guy. He would treat Tom Osborne the same as the waitress serving us dinner. I was so attracted to that,” said Katie, who grew up on a farm in Lindsay, Neb.

Clete remembers their paths initially crossing at a Starbucks in 2007, and being struck by her beauty. “We talked for maybe 20 minutes,” he said. “She was very pretty, and I found out quickly she was beautiful inside and out. She’s smart and grounded.”

In addition to her job with a pharmaceutical company, Katie runs the household. “We’re a good pair. We complement each other well. It’s a natural relationship,” Clete observed.

The Blakemans were married in July 3, 2010, and have two children: three-year-old Maeve and one-year-old Hudson.

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The Blakeman family: Katie, Maeve, Hudson and Clete.

 

In addition to his passion and love of family and football, Blakeman has a law career. He works as a personal injury attorney for Carlson & Burnett in Omaha. So he has to find the right time to review video, analyze plays, study for upcoming games and communicate with his crew in a way that seamlessly integrates into his family and business life.

“He studies rules and watches game film in his spare time, usually after the kids are put to bed, and finds a good balance,” Katie said.

Katie believes a large part of Blakeman’s success in all his endeavors is from his innate personality and how he treats others. “A lot of his success comes from his humbleness,” Katie said. “I thought he might be arrogant, but found he has good morals, values and principles, and our friendship moved onto a relationship. Church and God are important in both our lives, and Clete also isn’t afraid to show his emotions.

“People who meet him find out what a good guy he is,” she continued, “as well as a husband and father.

“Fundamentally, he’s a happy person. It’s that simple. He’s a ‘glass-half-full’ guy. He treats everyone with respect and he makes those around him feel important. People want to be around him. If he has something bad happen in a game or at work, he doesn’t bring it home with him.”

But he does involve his family in his officiating. Last spring he brought his wife and kids to the NFL Referee Association meeting. “(Officials have) become our extended family. So many great people are involved in NFL officiating,” Katie said.

“I get a kick out of watching Clete parent,” Meyer said. “His demeanor with them is the same he displays on the field.”


Professional Through and Through

Two stories sum up who Blakeman is, Miles said.

Typically, there is one locker room attendant for the NFL officiating crew at each stadium and the crew pays him for his help. In Green Bay there are two attendants, a father-son team, and the son is challenged. Blakeman suggested his crew pay both.

“It was cool to see their reaction,” Miles said. “We put the money in envelopes like we usually do, and you should have seen their faces light up when they opened them.”

Miles’ father died three years ago. The following year, crewmate Tony Veteri’s father also died.

“Clete called my wife to get some photos of my dad,” Miles recalled. “We were at Green Bay and he had them put the pictures of me and my dad up on the (Jumbotron). I got all teared up but that was the best motivator.

“Clete dedicated the season to my dad, then he did the same thing with Tony’s father,” Miles explained. “Before we would walk out of the tunnel on Sunday, Clete would tell the crew, ‘Be a man and be professional. Your dads are watching over us.’ It fired me and Tony up.”

Whether it’s meeting with the television network personnel or working with the technician who helps him test his microphone before the game, people agree that when Clete Blakeman shows up, others “light up.”

“There’s a sense of relief that, ‘Clete’s here,’” Miles said.

Dave Simon officiated basketball for 18 years, 12 at the collegiate level. He has written for Referee for 25 years, and currently lives in Grapevine, Texas.

Referee Magazine(This feature was published in the 02/15 issue of Referee Magazine.)

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