NFL Umpire Placement Rule Continues to Evolve

[media-credit name="Brent Smith | Reuters" align="alignleft" width="250"][/media-credit]

At the outset of the preseason, the NFL put a new rule in place to improve the safety of its officials, which required their umpires to move from the defensive side of the ball, just behind the linebackers, to the offensive side of the ball, 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.  One byproduct of the change is that it fundamentally alters the pace of spotting the football, and getting set for the snap.  Peyton Manning and the Colts offense pushed the limits of the rule in the team’s third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, resulting in two penalties against the Colts offense for “playing too fast.”

The team was not playing too fast for NFL football, or too fast for the Packers to be on their side of the ball.  The Colts were too fast for the umpire and the head official to move back into position behind all offensive players.  The penalties led to the league holding major discussions about ways to modify umpire positioning to retain safety, while reducing the impact on the pace of NFL offenses.

Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk reports that these discussions led to the NFL sending out a memo to all 32 NFL teams on Tuesday morning, announcing that the umpires will line up 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, still on the offensive side of the ball, to start the regular season.  Additionally, the umpires will move back into their prior position, on the defensive side of the ball, in the following situations: the offense is within five yards of the goal line, inside of two minutes to play in the first half, and inside of five minutes to play in the second half.

One caveat to the rule, which the NFL hopes will limit the impact it has on the pace of offenses, is that quarterbacks are free to snap the ball once the umpire is deeper than the deepest offensive player — even if the umpire is not set in position.  While this should limit how much the rule slows down the game, the issue still remains that quarterbacks should not need to look away from the line of scrimmage before they snap the football.  In order to confirm that the umpire has moved to a location deep enough to legally snap the ball, quarterbacks will be required to get confirmation from one of the sideline officials who will raise their hand — similar to the way the referee blows his whistle and raises his hand to signify to kickers that they are free to kick the ball on kickoffs.

Quarterbacks are trained throughout their careers to never take their eyes off of the defense prior to the snap.  This rule necessitates that they do so.  In the Colts offense, one known for constantly reading the defense prior the snap, with a quarterback who is quick to audible to another play if he does not like what he sees, the rule is counter-intuitive and potentially costly.

Manning refers to the rule’s impact on catching defenses with too many players on the field in a story with Mike Chappell of the Indy Star, “Twelve men on the field . . . what about that guy getting off the field? Do you just sit there and watch him go off the field? Do you turn back (to the umpire) and check and say, ‘Hey, are you ready?’”

Another problem with the evolution of the rule is that it flies in the face of the intended reason to move the umpires from their previous position to begin with: safety.  Umpires were in a meat grinder on the defensive side of the ball every year prior to 2010, leading to collisions, concussions, and offensive players utilizing officials as picks to get open in short crossing patterns.  As the rule currently stands, the umpires will only be in this danger zone when the short crossing patterns will lead to touchdowns, and when all NFL teams are generally in hurry-up offenses to close out each half.

Needless to say, it is at those times that concerns about picks, and concerns about safety are most probable.  When the game is on the line, when players are flying all over the field to keep opponents from controlling the tempo, and when defenders are frantically attempting to stop touchdowns, is when the meat grinder will be most active.

Moreover, the bigger concern for umpires under the new rules is conditioning.  Running in and back out during hurry up offenses puts a very high demand on umpires physically, who will need to last an entire game at NFL speeds, to limit the impact of this rule on the outcome of games.  It seems reasonable for the NFL to consider enforcing higher physical conditioning requirements and consider issuing umpires with protective gear that would limit the risk of injury when they are on the defensive side of the ball.

One way or another, there is a strong likelihood that the evolution of this new rule is not over.  Hopefully the outcome of the rule will be improved safety for officials and a minimal impact on such an imperative part of the most exciting professional sport in the country.  Until they get this rule right, there is almost a certainty that exciting comeback victories like those the Colts had against teams like the Patriots, Texans, Dolphins, and Jaguars in recent seasons will start to disappear.