No one likes to see a lot of flags thrown. They interrupt the flow of the game and can seem to make it drag on endlessly. Sometimes it’s one of those ragged games where we don’t have any choice. But often some solid, well-timed preventive officiating on our part is better than tossing a flag and may keep us from having to do so later on.

Two different situations come to mind. One is where a player is close to fouling and we’re trying to keep him from crossing the line. The other is where he does foul and we ignore it because it had no effect on the play (advantage-disadvantage philosophy), but we want him to know that given different facts we may call it.

Newer officials may be reluctant to use preventive officiating because they don’t know when or how, fear being accused of coaching or are still in the overly technical “see a foul, call it” stage of their development. Once they’ve been around awhile, they see its benefits.

Take a tackle who is off the line of scrimmage, maybe with his shoulders turned, to gain an advantage on a defender trying to get around him. If it’s just a few inches let it go; no harm, no foul. If he’s flirting with not meeting the requirements of being on the line, the wing official should tell him to move up after the play ends or tell the referee so he can tell him. Then tell the head coach you’ve warned him. That almost always achieves the desired result. If he does get so far back he’s clearly not a lineman by rule, we’ve no choice but to call it because he’s gaining an unfair advantage. The coach will usually stay quiet because he’ll appreciate the fact you provided an opportunity to fix things.

Say the tackle has his hands outside the defender’s body and grabs him a little. If there’s no material restriction, let him know he’s borderline and needs to work his hands back in, let go when he gets beat, etc. If there’s enough restriction for a flag but you ignore it because the play goes the other way, tell him that, too.

Don’t nitpick whether a split receiver is on the line or in the backfield or, if there are two or more receivers, there’s a slight stagger between them because the defense knows they’re meant to be eligible. But when one or more are almost in the backfield, making too many backs, or the stagger is barely perceptible, let them know there’s a problem and clue in the head coach. When one is clearly in the backfield or they’re flatlined so there’s no avoiding the fact one is covering up the other and there’s a downfield pass, the time for warnings is over because the applicable rules are clearly violated and their alignment may affect how the defense reads the play.

Wing officials should point to the line of scrimmage to help receivers get properly situated. But don’t tell them to move up or back because you don’t know where they’re supposed to be and may end up making them foul. Also, talking to them may cause them to be moving at the snap. If they ask, “Am I OK?” just point and say, “My foot’s on the line.”

Let marginal hits on the quarterback go if the defender was already committed or not quite late. But say, “That was close — more and I’m ringing it up,” to let them know to be careful. Conversely, if a defender held up on a quarterback or went over the pile instead of into a downed runner, praise him. Just as a talk-to when players are on the verge of fouling is good practice, verbally patting them on the back when they easily could have fouled but didn’t can go a long way toward creating a positive atmosphere and keeping problems at bay.

Downfield officials can counsel defenders if they get grabby with receivers. We can warn if a little yank doesn’t take the receiver out of his route or we ignore action that’s foul-worthy because the quarterback threw elsewhere. Letting them know we’re watching and they’re on the edge of fouling gives them a chance to fix things on their own. But we can’t ignore the material restriction that doesn’t let the receiver run his route or hinders his effort to catch a pass.

Coaches sometimes need counseling. If an assistant gripes about a call, you can generally ignore it unless it carries on to the next play. Then tell him to turn the page. If he doesn’t, tell the head coach you’ve reached the end of your rope and he needs to calm his assistant down. Don’t threaten as in, “If he keeps yapping I’m flagging him,” because that is provocative. Handle head coaches the same way, although they get more leeway than their assistants. But flag it if they come on the field to complain or hurl personal insults.
We must calm players down if they get too aggressive with opponents. It’s an emotional game and tensions will run high, but if they start the in-your-face trash talk and post-play pushing and shoving, give them a firm talk-to. Sometimes you can go to the quarterback or defensive captain and tell them to get a certain guy under control. They like that responsibility and usually take care of things. If that doesn’t work and we’re getting to the brink of war, we may have to toss our marker; we can’t just warn all the time without there ever being consequences.

In sum, throwing flags is easy. What’s harder is knowing when action isn’t quite foul-worthy and some judicious counseling might prevent it from getting there. The ability to recognize when and how to do that, and to know when enough is enough and a flag is in order, are marks of a good official and make for a better game.

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