Many thanks to Carl Johnson and the NFL referees for allowing me to hang out with them for a day in Dallas as they worked their craft. The most important thing that I come away from those meetings with is that I am sure glad I don't have to make those calls. There are so many rules, exceptions to rules, and exceptions to the exceptions that is makes your head spin. They give a quiz that the officials have to score 80% on or better. I can barely figure out what the heck they are asking. It makes law school look like elementary school.
For example: 1st and 10 on 50. A2 takes the handoff and runs to the B40 where he loses the ball and B1 recovers at the B42 and advances into the A's end zone. Officials rule that A2 was down by contact at the B40. A2 lost the ball before he was down by contact.
Imagine reading a hundred of those things over lunch. But, those guys breeze through it occasionally arguing over details of one of the questions with discussions that are often tough to follow.
It is never easy to criticize the officials when you see how hard they work at it and how much they care. I used to end up in the same Crown Room as the officials after games when I worked early games for NBC and Fox. They would immediately debrief me about the tough calls in the game. “Did I get it right?” They were all so passionate about making correct calls, it was tough to tell them when they didn’t.
We spent about an hour going over catch or no-catch scenarios. The basics of the rule are now:
2) Two feet down
3) Some element of time after two feet down. Basically the old “do something football related.”
The Calvin Johnson rule would still not be a catch. He caught the ball, controlled it, got two feet down, but in the process of going to the ground he had to maintain control until he completed the process of going to the ground. Johnson’s last roll over was with the ball in one hand and when that hand hit the ground the ball popped out. Incomplete. They did contrast that with a couple of plays when the receiver caught the ball, went to the ground and controlled it, then raised the ball to show it to the referee and the defender knocked it out of his hands. That is a completion because he completed the process of going to the ground with the ball still in his control.
The referees were also considering all the new tricks the special teams coaches would come up with now that they are kicking off from the 35. The other part of that rule that I had not heard is that all of the cover guys have to be within 5 yards of the 35. No more 10 yard running start before the kickoff. So expect a lot of crossing to build momentum just before the ball is kicked. The feeling is that there will be a lot of high directional kicks as teams try to pin the receiving team inside the 20.
The other change is that now ALL scoring plays will be reviewed. We had a game in Green Bay last year where the TD was obviously wrong, but by the time the crew got to the 4th or 5th replay that finally showed the mistake, the extra point had already been kicked. Now the umpire will stand over the ball until the score is confirmed and the replay official can take all the time he wants.
When you sit in their seats and debate close plays at real speed, you get a pretty good sense of what a good job they generally do. It was a fun day. The season has officially begun. Have rule book, will travel.