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A LOOK AT THE NFL OFFICIATING CHANGES PT 1

A LOOK AT THE NFL OFFICIATING CHANGES

by BayAreaGiants (Al)


It is almost time to play football again and time to take a look at some of the changes that have (or haven't) been made related to NFL officiating during the off season. 

NFL Front Office Changes 

Despite the assumptions of some and the claims of many, the discipline (i.e., fines and suspensions) that is handed down weekly to NFL players is not the work of Roger Goodell but a committee within the NFL office previously headed by Merton Hanks, the ex-49er and reporting to Troy Vincent, Executive Vice President of Football Operations. Both Hanks and Vincent, as well as the other members of the committee are ex-players.

Hanks left his position with the NFL during the offseason and the league has announced that Jon Runyan has been appointed to a newly created position of vice president of policy and rules administration. Among his duties, Runyan will serve as the executive in charge of on-field discipline — namely, fines and suspensions — with the approval of the executive vice president of operations and the commissioner. Runyan will also “oversee club and game-related initiatives related to players … and also supervise the Uniform and Protective Equipment Inspection Program.”

In his 14-year career, Runyan was primarily an offensive tackle for the Oilers, Titans, Eagles, and Chargers.  He was selected to the 2002 Pro Bowl, and played in two Super Bowls. During his playing days, Runyan was named as the second-most dirty player in the league by his peers in a 2006 Sports Illustrated survey. (Patriots safety Rodney Harrison finished #1 garnering nearly one-quarter of the vote.) After retiring from football, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, representing a congressional district in southern New Jersey. In 2014, he did not run for election to a third term.

New Officials 

After significant infusion of new faces into the NFL officiating ranks over the past two seasons, there was only one on-field retirement in the offseason, head linesman George Hayward, and three NCAA officials were hired by the league in the offseason. All three new officials participated in the league's Advanced Development Program last year, 
By bringing in three new officials and losing one, the size of the officiating staff will increase to 124. As a result, five veteran officials are designated as swing officials, and will be assigned to different crews during the season. The swing officials also provide backup in case an official is injured during the season. 

Existing Officials

Following a trend started last season, Senior Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino has announced a significant shake-up in officiating crews this season from last year. Although all 17 Referees will return, many of the crews will undergo major changes with Pete Morelli's crew completely revised after the group had a less than stellar season last year. 
In addition, Blandino announced that contrary to the traditional practice of keeping officiating crews together from week to week throughout the whole of a season with few deviations, this year there will be an intentional practice of moving officials between crews as the season progresses.  

There are many that feel that this practice will destroy one of the key aspects of any officiating crew, consistency and familiarity between crew members. On the other hand, it will enable the league to "hide" certain poorer performing officials from key matchups or high profile games during the season. Crew consistency allows officials to develop chemistry with each other as they learn how the other officials work on the field. If mistakes are made, the crew gets to review the situation and make the necessary adjustments. If officials are being moved around constantly, there is no such opportunity to work things out and upgrade the following week. 

There was no indication how often this new practice would be implemented or how many officials each week will change crews. The implication was that changes would be made as necessary and where it would be most beneficial; otherwise, crews would remain the same.
There are five swing officials on the NFL staff and they will be rotated between crews throughout the season. Many of these officials have significant experience and some have worked the Super Bowl in the past. The existence of this backup staff will allow the insertion of a more experienced official into a crew where some of the younger officials may be experiencing problems. 

Based on my discussions with some of the officials, the movement between crews is not supported by most of the veteran officials but they have no choice. It would, however, have been of some value last season when Morelli's crew almost had a weekly meltdown due in part to the weakness of at least one crew member.   

Potential Future Officials

This year, the NFL has included 29 younger officials in its annual preseason developmental/training program. These officials will attend preseason clinics, training camps, scrimmages, and crew meetings and have a chance to work preseason games. Once the regular season begins, these college and CFL officials will return to their regular conference or league to officiate. If a future vacancy opens on the NFL roster, one of the developmental officials could be hired. As part of the NFL's continuing social engineering experiments, there are three women included in the program. 

The increased size of the program is indicative of at least two factors: 1) a number of the more veteran officials will be retiring over the next 1-3 seasons; and 2) there is a possibility of the NFL going to 8 officials next season  Both reasons will create a significant number of openings in the officiating staff. 

The developmental officials will wear the regular NFL officials’ uniform and will have numbers above 136 during the preseason games. 

[As a side note, 4 NFL officials are officiating in the Canadian football League this summer and a similar number of CFL officials will be working NFL exhibition games. In addition, three CFL officials will join the NFL Officials Development program. Although the cross border swap is being sold as an opportunity for some of the younger NFL officials to gain additional game experience, there are many who believe that it is a tacit recognition that some of the officials that have been added to the league staff over the past two seasons lacked the necessary experience to work in the NFL but had been promoted in any event.] 

Equipment Changes

The NFL has announced that microchips will be placed in footballs during the preseason in order to study the kicking game (i.e., field goals and extra points). The intent of this experiment is to determine how field goals can be modified to make them more difficult for the kickers. With the microchips, new information such as how close a kicked ball comes to the uprights and how far a kicked ball travels can potentially change the format of the current scrimmage kick. The chips will weigh less than a quarter of an ounce and supposedly will not impact the performance of the balls. 

During the 2015 Pro Bowl, the NFL  tried a narrower goal width with the goalposts  narrowed from the current width of 18 feet, 6 inches to 14 feet. This change, along with the PAT kicks coming from the 22 yard line resulted in two missed extra points and one missed field goal. 

The microchips will strictly be used for experimental purposes in the kicking game, and not for any officiating-related aspects of the game, including line to gain, forward progress or possible goal line scoring situations. 

Pass Completion Rule

In response to the furor last season regarding when is a pass complete, the NFL undertook a detailed study of the situation during the offseason and came to the conclusion that the rule as presently written will remain basically unchanged. Although there has been some wording added to the rule in an attempt to clarify when a received should be deemed to have possession and complete the catch (see below), the basic rule remains the same as in the past. 

Despite the wording changes, the catch process involves the same three elements as in the past: control, two feet, and time. A player must control the ball, get two feet in bounds, and have the ball long enough to become a runner (the time element). If the player is going to the ground, he must control the ball all the way through the contact with the ground. There is nothing a player can do on his way to the ground that can demonstrate a catch — reach, stretch or lunge, that will change the call

It was mentioned that in the event of “bang-bang” plays (i.e., virtually instantaneous contact with the receiver) the time element cannot be determined and as a result, the pass is to be ruled incomplete. Replay officials will also be included in the analysis of the play (although it is unclear how this is to be done on plays that are not challenged) to ensure that the time element is taken into consideration. The Replay Officials have been instructed to run the play at full speed and not to go too slow so as to distort the time element.

The revised wording of the rule is as follows: [Key wording changes underlined}

"Possession of Loose Ball. To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and then maintain control of the ball long enough to become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground, there is no possession. This rule applies in the field of play and in the end zone."  

As in the past, if a receiver goes to the ground while attempting a catch, he must maintain complete control all the way through the process for the catch to be complete. 

Announcing Change

Mike Carey will not be back with CBS next season as the "officiating guru." Although a solid onfield official, Carey's performance in the booth left a lot to be desired and his contract was not renewed. Mike Pereira will continue with Fox. 

In the next posting, I will discuss the new rules and the new wording that has been added to the Rule Book. Often the latter changes are just as important as the former. 

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