FOX Sports Exclusive
New rule could affect hurry-up offenses
Strikes have a completely different meaning for NFL umpires than their peers in baseball.
Traditionally positioned five to seven yards from the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the football, NFL officials, who wear black and white, were increasingly becoming black and blue. Umpires were involved in more than 100 collisions during the 2009 season. Three suffered concussions. Two more required surgery for on-field injuries.
“Those guys should have had combat pads,” Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. “It’s something I wouldn’t have done, and I’m pretty tough. They’re in the way all of the time.”
Not anymore. The NFL hopes to better protect its officials by moving the umpire into the offensive backfield.
The switch won’t be noticeable to the casual fan, but could affect elements of the game such as hurry-up offenses, play-calling across the middle of the field and how penalties are flagged because of the change in vantage point.
“They’ve adjusted some of the mechanics to cover up for that move,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “I trust they know what they’re doing. It’s going to be one of those experiences where time will tell.”
Umpires will now be positioned 12 to 15 yards deep in the offensive backfield parallel to the referee. That will sometimes slow how quickly the ball can be marked for the next snap.
“When the umpire was standing on the defensive side of the ball, the play would pretty much end near him most of the time. Now he’s in chase mode to spot the football,” new NFL Vice President of Officiating Carl Johnson told FOXSports.com during a telephone interview. “The spot will be by committee now.”
Johnson said the umpire will be responsible for spotting the football on plays that finish “5 to 10 yards” down field before returning to his new on-field position. (Phillips joked that umpires “will have to be in better shape” because of the additional running required.)
Longer plays will involve downfield officials determining the spot, which could create delays until kinks in the system are ironed out. Umpires will revert to their previous defensive positioning during the final two minutes of each half as well as for field-goal attempts.
“A team that runs the hurry-up offense outside two minutes is going to be a challenge,” Johnson said. “It will take a little longer to get the football down. The (NFL’s) competition committee is aware of this. The reason we did this was safety, not to slow down any offenses.”
Spagnuolo believes quarterbacks who frequently run no-huddle attacks such as Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady won’t be greatly affected because they usually “sit and try to see what you’re doing (defensively)” before making their calls and running the play. But teams who want to catch a defense off-guard with a quick snap at specific times, such as a short-yardage situation, may find it more difficult to execute. Defenses also should be able to substitute more easily if there are delays in spotting the football.
“It’s the fast (offenses) that are trying to beat the defenses that will have the issues,” Spagnuolo said.
The NFL feels that is a small price to pay for the physical toll being taken on its officials. Many of the collisions stemmed from offensive and defensive players attempting to use umpires as picks on short crossing routes. The middle of the field will now be more wide open. This could lead to increased passing attempts in that area as well as more big hits on wide receivers with defenders no longer having to worry about the umpire’s placement.
“In a lot of ways, great offensive players have used the umpire to their advantage,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett admitted. “Sometimes, the umpire flat-out gets in the way. It will be a lot safer for them not to be in the middle of that. If you think about these guys standing there with all this traffic coming at them, it’s a danger zone.”
Mike Pereira, who now works for FOX Sports since resigning the position that Johnson has assumed, said there is other potential fallout from the umpire’s repositioning. Umpires will have a better view of the entire offensive line, which could lead to a rise in holding penalties. False-start penalties might decrease because the umpire is farther away from the line of scrimmage and may not be able to spot a flinch as easily.
“If history rings true, I think we’ll have less holds (called) starting out,” Pereira said. “They’re looking at things from such a different perspective that they may be hesitant until they get more comfortable. The key is there will be better quality calls because you will have a better look. You don’t have to look through as many people.”
Conversely, Pereira said, defensive holding along the line of scrimmage may be tougher to spot because that responsibility now falls largely to the back judge. One NFL coach said he wouldn’t be surprised if defensive linemen try illegally barking out signals in hopes of drawing false starts because umpires won’t be close enough to hear such chicanery.
“I had great reservations when the final decision was made to make this move, but we have to protect (the umpires),” Pereira said.
The NFL is making the umpire repositioning a major focus during the preseason in hopes that any problems can be corrected before the start of the regular season. Johnson said this was “absolutely” the biggest officiating issue he has dealt with since being named to succeed Pereira in February.
“Whenever you change something there’s a little trepidation,” said Johnson, an NFL line judge the past nine seasons. “But our guys are professionals. They’ve assured me without a doubt that they’re going to make this happen successfully.”