Trying to manage a football game would be nearly impossible without effective and pointed communication. Although managing players is primarily the responsibility of the coaching staff, officials can facilitate the conduct of the game if specific officials manage certain players.
To do that, officials must talk with players frequently. There are a few special relationships and here are the most notable ones.
The referee’s first priority is the quarterback. No other official should be observing that player unless he runs the ball beyond the line or goes out of bounds. The referee helps protect the quarterback not only by holding late-hitting defenders accountable, but also by deterring unnecessary contact through his presence and the use of his voice.
When Joe Namath was playing for the New York Jets, he wanted extra protection for his receivers — to a point. In a game against the Houston Oilers, a defensive back made a good play on one of Namath’s receivers, coming over the top, hitting the ball and then knocking the receiver to the ground. Namath turned to referee John McDonough and said, “For God’s sake! Why don’t you go down there and call something? They’re jumping all over my receivers.”
A TV timeout followed, so McDonough went over to Namath and pointed to the Oilers front four. “They run about 265 pounds each and they got one thing on their mind. They’re going to rip your head right off your shoulders. So, on the next four or five plays, you’d better protect yourself.”
“What do you mean?” said Broadway Joe.
McDonough replied, “Every time you throw the ball, Joe, I’m standing right next to you hollering, ‘Don’t hit him. He’s dead.’ So those guys know you’ve released the ball and they peel away and don’t hit you. But I’m not going to be here for the next four or five plays. I’m gonna run downfield and make sure they don’t mess with your receivers.” Namath quickly replied, “You stay right here. The hell with the receivers!”
Additionally, the referee can use his relationship with the quarterback to take care of problem players, but here is an actual scenario of excessive protection. The passer was flushed from the pocket and fled toward the sidelines only to reverse himself and flee the opposite way. He finally threw the ball, complete, but stood bent over and gasping for breath after the frantic run. The referee, approaching him, ordered a teammate to kneel and untie his shoe. “We’re going to take an equipment timeout until you are back to breathing easily.”
The lower the level of play, the more dialogue is necessary. A premature snap can make a game ugly in a heartbeat. While that act is clearly a foul, it can easily be prevented. The penalty is five yards for delay of game (NFHS 3-6-2e; NCAA 3-4-2b-6, 4-1-4).
Long snappers inevitably prefer the laces in a different position than the regular snapper so fingers can grip the laces. Some long snappers like to move the ball forward to gain momentum before passing it backward and the umpire should address that as necessary.
As the referee is with the quarterback, the umpire is the protector of the snapper. When the offense is in a scrimmage kick formation, he should remind the defense to not hit the snapper. Under NFHS rules, in that formation, no defensive player may charge directly into the snapper. The protection exists until the snapper can protect himself, blocks or otherwise moves to participate in the play. “Protect himself” means the snapper has time to look up and regain his balance. If contacted directly while his head is still down and before he has been given a chance to look up, the contact is likely to be a foul. If the contact is slight and indirect, it is unlikely to be a foul.
In NCAA play, no defensive player may initiate contact with the snapper until one second has elapsed after the snap. In both codes, the protection exists whether or not there is a kick and the penalty is a personal foul for roughing the snapper, a 15-yard penalty with an automatic first down (NFHS 2-32-14, 9-4-6; NCAA 9-1-14).
Back judge/Kicker (kickoffs)
The dialogue is essential, especially because most of it should take place before the game begins. The back judge should know how many players are in the formation, and if there are less than 11, he should ask the kicker to count his teammates. They should also advise the kicker if any player is in a position that would result in a foul when the ready is blown (NFHS) or the ball is kicked (NCAA).
The back judge can help prevent a premature kick (one before the ready is blown) by communicating to the kicker how it will be made clear to him that it is OK to kick the ball. In many stadiums, the crowd may preclude hearing the referee’s ready whistle. Some back judges prefer to point at the kicker when the ready is blown.
Back judge/Punt returner
On the first punt for each team, remind the receiver how to signal properly. A valid fair catch signal is the extending and lateral waving of one arm, clearly above the head, by any member of the receiving team. NFHS specifies at full arm’s length and NCAA stipulates more than one wave. Examples of invalid signals include: a limp wave, partially extending and waving one hand in front of the face or chest and fully extending and laterally waving both heads above the head. Any waving signal should be interpreted as an invalid signal and the play whistled dead when a player obtains possession. When a receiver shades his eyes during a kick, he must do so with a bent arm and without waving so it cannot be interpreted as an invalid signal (NFHS 2-9-3, 2-9-4; NCAA 2-8).
The officials on the sideline don’t have a relationship with a specific player but communicating properly with the widest player in the formation as to whether he is on or off the line is essential. An official should never tell a player who isn’t where he wants to be, to move. That will likely get the official blamed for causing a foul.