Officials know the rules but prep leads to correct on-field calls
When Art McNally talks, you better listen. It’s hard not to, actually, what with his booming voice and commanding presence, even at 87 years old. It’s something to behold, especially when he’s in room surrounded by his brethren, fellow football officials.
In late July, college football officials from three conferences -- Atlantic Coast, Conference USA and Big South -- met in Charlotte, N.C., with one purpose: go through their own training camp, running through the exercises -- albeit mostly mental -- that they will have to put on display on fields around the country in the fall.
McNally, who spent 32 years as the Director of Officiating in the NFL and is an authority on rules of the game, wanted to tell a story during one of Conference USA’s breakout sessions. The room went quiet as his story unfolded, one that included him setting the record straight with John Madden during an NFL game. McNally had a point to make to the room, one that he imparted on Madden that day: Knowledge is power. Having a grasp of every rule, being ready for any type of situation is the only way to fend off the question of whether or not you made the right call.
Gerald Austin learned from McNally during his 27-year officiating career in the NFL. Now entering his 11th season as coordinator of officials for Conference USA, Austen utilizes the wisdom McNally can impart on his officials during their preseason officiating clinic. The room is full of men -- and a handful of women -- who know a thing or two about the rules, but always have room to learn a little more.
“Studies they’ve done on officiating, officials have a sense that they know what’s going on and that they know they’re right. And you better have some video to prove me wrong. You can’t tell me I’m wrong, you gotta prove it, you gotta show it, prove me I’m wrong.,” Austin said.
“But now, also, when I’m proven wrong, I have to be willing to see ‘What did I do that I should have done differently?’ so that I’m not wrong again on a play of that nature.”
To that end, officials have to take test at the clinic. It’s 25 questions with one bonus question. Austin wants to see how well they know the rules. Each official has access to practice tests online, a normal part of their regular-season routine to stay sharp with the ever-changing rules manual. As they say, their pregame starts on Monday when they review the previous week’s game and start studying on the areas they may have had questions about in the game.
It’s not as easy as you’d think. Joe Fan sitting at home may see a player holding and immediately call for a 10-yard flag. But from where does the yardage get marked off -- the spot of the foul or the line of scrimmage? Does where the foul happened figure into the yardage? How about this one: A return man fumbles the ball out of the end zone into the field of play. He reaches out, picks it up while his knee is down in the end zone. Touchback? Safety? Ball at the 1-yard line?
I took the test sitting in a quiet conference room and with as much time as I wanted to answer each question. The questions filled the front and back of two sheets of paper but without studying, it was as daunting as climbing Mount Everest in an ice storm while wearing Crocs.
In the end I had just nine of 26 answers correct. That’s the right penalty along with the correct judgment on the placement of the ball and down. Austin expects his officials will get all the questions correct. True, they get to study, but even being off by 1 yard on the placement of the ball voids the answer. And they have to normally do it outside, with several variables like weather and noise among the most noticeable.
Want to give it a try yourself? Here are five questions as they appeared on the officials' test:
1) A, 1/10 @ A-40
Team A goes with a no-huddle offense and substitutes between plays. At no time do all eleven Team A players come to a complete stop. The slot back is in motion at the snap.
2) A, 2/10 @ B-35
Immediately following the completed pass play at the B-31, the BJ realizes Team B played with 12 players.
3) A, 4/10 @ B-15
The snap goes over the head of the holder & kicker on a field goal attempt. At the B-30 the holder kicks the loose ball backward and out of bounds at the B-32.
4) A, 2/10 @ 50
While pass blocking at the 50-yard line, the L-Tackle’s helmet comes off. The L-Tackle runs from the 50 to the 30-yard line and blocks or attempts to block a defender trying to tackle the pass receiver. The ball becomes dead at the B-25. No foul was involved regarding the Tackle’s helmet coming off.
5) A, 3/Goal @B-4
Team A trails 14-10 and has no timeouts remaining and only seconds remaining in the game. The ball carrier dives for the goal line and is ruled to have scored a TD with 2 seconds remaining in the game. Replay shows that when the runners’ knee hit the ground, the ball was on the ½ yard line. Replay reverses the ruling to A’s ball 4th & goal on the ½ yard line. If the play had been properly ruled on the field, time would have expired without Team A getting off another play.
Bonus: A, 4/6 @ A-30
The Receiver signals for a fair catch at the B-25. He muffs the ball into the air at the B-25. After the muff, the Receiver steps forward and catches the ball at the B-27. After the catch the Kickers tackle him at the B-27.
So, how many of these do you think you correctly answered? Are you positive? Being decisive is the most important thing an official can do. If he has the knowledge and understands the way to apply the rules, it makes the job all that much easier. (Correct answers are below.)
Most teams averaged between 70 and 80 plays per game last year. Only two teams among 120 in the FBS ranks had more than 8.0 penalties per contest. Sixty-four teams were called for fewer than 6.0 penalties per game. Keeping the game clean is the officials’ first job. When a call is missed -- or when an official is not too sure about a call -- and he’s standing out there and thinking about that call, the biggest concern is letting it go so he doesn’t miss the next play in front of him.
“You have to let it go, just like a batter striking out with the bases loaded. You have to let that go so the next time you come up you’re loose, relaxed, ready to do it, ready to perform,” Austin said. “You can’t perform when you’re thinking backward instead of forward.”
1) A, 1/15 @ A-35
2) A, 2/5 @ B-30
3) B, 1/10 @ B-40
4) A, 2/5 @ B-45
5) Review, Ball @ ½, ready
Bonus: B, 1/10 @ B-40