How to Set and Maintain a Good Tempo
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.
Mental 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.