It takes a great deal of fortitude to venture into the jumble of flailing arms and bodies where only linebackers dare to tread. But in addition to being fearless, umpires must be intelligent. They should be able to read offenses and defenses equally well; should talk to defensive players when they need talking to; must stand with the ball at the correct enforcement spot until the referee gives permission to walk off the yardage, and then step off the distance correctly. Umpiring is no place for a dummy.
But all those general characteristics aside, let’s get specific about how an umpire is supposed to function.
Here are some things a good umpire will do:
Some umpires will check with centers about placement of laces before the game ever starts. Umpires who don’t trust their memory will slap a section of tape around a wrist and as a reminder — visitors on the inside of the arm, home team on the outside. During the game, if there is doubt, the ball will be placed with the laces up and the snapper will be told to roll the ball.
Umpires will never say a thing to offensive players coming out of the huddle. If you’ve played football (or coached it) you know that an offensive player coming out of the huddle must pick up his blocking assignment and concentrate on the snap count. The official should not interfere with that. If a specific player is on the verge of committing an illegal act with his hands or arms, get to him between plays and remind him personally. Don’t issue blanket warnings.
A good umpire will also stand over the ball when appropriate, facing the referee and count the offense. If there were 11 on the previous play and you’re sure there are no substitutions, it’s an easy count. Once they break the huddle and approach the line, you can do a second count while you’re checking the numbers of the five interior linemen. Most umpires can count in bunches: the interiors, the backs, then the receivers. Verify the count with the referee.
Many umpires count the defense as well. Doing so obliges the umpire to be continually checking the entire defensive squad. Between plays the umpire should be an avid listener and observer, listening for expressions of anger, pain and frustration. The umpire may want to ask for the captain’s help in controlling an agitated teammate. If you hear a complaint, treat it seriously. Talk directly to the complainer and assure him you understand his concern. Listen to defensive signal-calling, making sure they are not intruding upon team A’s verbal signals.
Like other good officials, the umpire will use keys to guide his eyes as a play unfolds. But unlike the rest of the crew, the umpire can personally select his own keys before the start of a play. After checking the ineligible interiors as they move into their stances, the umpire will choose two men to watch at the instant of the snap: either the center-guard or the left or right guard-tackle. The umpire can’t watch the whole line; if so, they’ll just be a blur. Until the snap, the umpire watches the center and the ball and may rule that an offensive player false started.
It is an instant after the snap, probably no more than two-tenths of a second, and the umpire sees that his two preselected attackers are not vital factors in the play. Rather, they brush block and head downfield. Quickly the umpire must shift attention to the crucial point of attack. That may be revealed by linemen double-teaming, by the quarterback spin or by pulling linemen.
The NFHS manual has the umpire starting four to seven yards off the line while the CCA book dictates eight to 10 yards. Either way, the umpire must work hard not to interfere with linebackers or get tangled with blockers. That means you must learn to pivot on plays headed straight for you. It almost has to be instinctive. Some umpires just turn and flee. Not much officiating goes on while they’re doing that.
Some umpires pride themselves in their ability to stay “focused” on the line regardless where the ball is. There’s a flaw in that posture. The umpire, of all people, has got to read the play and react accordingly. If it’s a sweep, the umpire must pivot and watch the blocking. The umpire must also recognize brush blocking on screen passes and draw plays. Fail to do that consistently and you’re going to get bowled over now and then.
Who can spot traps on any passes caught behind the line? Only the umpire. The referee must focus on the passer. The wings have been deployed downfield. In a similar vein, on short passes down the middle there are times only the umpire can see the dive and catch because the wing officials have been screened. The umpire can also help on traps beyond the line.
But the umpire should definitely concentrate on observing pass blocking until his peripheral vision warns him that the pass has been released. The “when” about his picking up the flight of the ball is past you. At that point any “hold” at the line is immaterial anyway. Let the flight of the ball guide your head.
Hustling umpires will enter the side zone to help with ball retrieval on major gains that carry near a sideline. The ball comes dead 20 yards downfield, two steps from the sideline or two steps from the hash. The umpire gets to where the wing has marked progress and says, “I’ve got your spot, go!” Then the wing can retreat to move the chain crew or do some dead-ball officiating. That’s a big help for a hurry-up offense.
Talk to the pile of players each time a runner is downed, cautioning about unpiling. Players need to know you’ll be among them each time. Still, don’t dive in too quickly so your jaw gets in the way of a rising player’s helmet. Umpires have been knocked out by players. It’s a rough world out there and not for the faint-hearted.