ball-watching football official
Watching the runner to the exclusion of what’s happening around him is a dangerous habit that officials need to consciously avoid. (Photo Credit: Bob Messina)

Two huge mistakes that officials can make are ball-watching and officiating air. The former means watching the runner to the exclusion of what’s happening around him. The latter means focusing on areas where nothing is going on instead of shifting our eyes to where something is happening. Both prevent us from seeing things we need to see. That problem, moreover, afflicts veterans and newer officials.

At times, to be sure, we must watch the runner and especially the ball. The wing officials and umpire must know if there’s an illegal snap, player in the neutral zone or false start. We must know if a runner’s body part (other than hand or foot) is down before the ball comes loose, he’s hit late or his facemask is yanked. Ball-watching is needed on close line-to-gain and goalline plays, including when an exuberant runner, thinking he has scored, drops the ball just before crossing the line. And so on.

What’s a no-no is when an official — worse, several — watches a runner when he’s in the wide open with no one near him. Take punt returns. We must look for a fair-catch signal and whether the ball is possessed cleanly. But when the returner starts upfield it can be easy to stay with him and miss takedowns, blocks in the back, and low and blindside blocks just a few feet away.

That can also happen when an H-back runs a sweep around end. Sometimes a wing official may be so focused on the back coming at him that he misses fouls in the immediate vicinity. We must learn to shift our focus from him to the action around him, while sensing where he is and who’s near him, shifting back only when he’s about to be tackled. Too often we become spectators mesmerized by his ability to dart here and there instead of officials who see the larger picture.

Another example is when a quarterback drops back to pass and the referee’s eyes stay on him, although he is not yet pressured by the defense. That accomplishes nothing and is a sure-fire way to allow fouls such as holding, illegal hands to the face and chop blocks to go undetected because no other official is in a position to pick them up. What the referee should do is watch the action around the quarterback while sensing where he is, what he’s doing and when he begins to be pressured so his eyes can transition back to him only when necessary to protect him.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that transition does not occur quickly enough. Early in my time as a college referee my eyes went to my initial key, the right tackle, after the snap and stayed there so long that I missed a hit to the quarterback’s head that put him in la-la land. I failed to sense where he was so my focus could shift to him when he was threatened. After that I vowed that if it’s a toss-up between staying with a tackle who looks like he might hold because, for example, he’s getting beat and going to the quarterback when he’s threatened, I would do the latter. Safety comes first, so it’s better to miss a hold than a foul on the passer.

When we “officiate air” we’re not ball-watching, but our eyes are not in a helpful place. Returning to the H-back end-sweep, if any of the covering officials simply watch the area (or air) in front of the back they’re not doing anything useful. What they must do is recognize (quickly), based on the defenders’ movement and the blockers’ bodies, hands and arms, where the first threat of a foul is and focus on it. If nothing happens there, go to the next threat and so on.

Assume that as a referee I process that the quarterback cleanly takes the snap, so my eyes shift to the tackle. But I continue to stay on him although the play goes the other way, he goes to the second level, or he and a defender “dance” with neither trying to do anything. That is a step removed from officiating air because I am watching something, but it’s equally unproductive. When any of those things happens, my focus should shift to where the next threat may be, which might involve a back, the right guard or center, or possibly players on the center’s other side, depending on how the play develops.

The bottom line is that just as officials don’t help the crew if they watch the runner when he’s in the wide open, they’re derelict if their eyes stay where action is neither happening nor likely to happen. Even in smaller crews each official has keys to watch pre-snap, at the snap and post-snap, but sometimes we forget that they are our initial keys and we can’t lock in on them forever. We must learn how to quickly shift our focus to some place useful, all the while sensing where the runner is so we can get back to him when necessary. If we watch him when no one’s around, focus on areas occupied only by air, or linger too long on our key or other players who aren’t presenting a threat of a foul, we may miss something that even a blind person could see.

I believe in visualization in officiating. I study rules by seeing plays in my mind’s eye and applying the relevant rules. Same here. No matter what position you work, imagine plays developing in all kinds of ways. Where are you focused? Where should you focus? If you practice keeping your eyes off the runner until there’s a reason to put them there and transitioning from where no action is taking place to where something important might happen, you’ll become more adept at doing that in games. If everyone on the crew does that, they will likely turn in one heckuva performance.

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