Philosophies, rules and mechanics have increasingly stressed the need to officiate through the passer — in other words, pay particular attention to contact on that player. That is because he’s often in a vulnerable position with little or no opportunity to protect himself from forcible contact. Although the quarterback may not be the passer, he usually is so we’ll assume that from here on.
I want to offer some thoughts about how we might do a better job in that area. For the most part I’ll steer clear of rules because an in-depth discussion would consume the entire column. Instead, I’ll address positioning, concentration, communication and mechanics.
The referee is primarily responsible for protecting the quarterback. The initial position is important. In both college and high school, I set up about 15 yards deep from where the ball is being snapped and two player positions outside the tight end. That is wider and deeper than many referees work in college and especially in high school, but it has lots of advantages.
First, it collapsed my field of vision more than if I were in closer so I could watch blocking while being able to sense when the quarterback was pressured. If the quarterback scrambled toward me, I didn’t go backward or sideways because I could get caught up in traffic and lose my focus. Instead, I backed out at a 45-degree angle, which let me keep a good cushion so that my eyes weren’t diverted from what was happening in front of me.
In that position, the action didn’t explode on me. I had a better perspective on the relation of defenders to the quarterback and the timing, location and nature of their hits on him. I could also stay set longer. I’ve seen referees get “happy feet” after the snap and dart this way and that. Stay still as long as you can; you’ll be better able to process action than you can if your head is bouncing up and down. The referee must move quicker in crews with fewer officials but can still stay set longer than some officials do.
Use preventive officiating
If the defender’s action is borderline, let him know that. “Number 56, that was close. Later or harder and I’m ringing you up!” Congratulate him when he holds up instead of plowing through the quarterback. Have a presence, in other words. If people know the cop is on the beat, they tend to settle down.
Defenders zeroing in on a quarterback can’t stop on a dime after a pass is released, so a good rule of thumb is they can’t hit him after taking a second step from that point. I wasn’t good enough to count steps; that was a “feel” thing based on whether I thought the rusher had time to hold up and tried to do so after he knew the pass was gone. I also didn’t let them wrap the quarterback up, lift him off the ground and slam him down with their full body weight.
We have to give the defense some leeway if the quarterback rolls out to one side and appears to be a runner, but it can’t be anything goes. If he passes, the issues again become timing and force. Was the defender committed to the tackle and if so, did he add anything extra? If he pushed the quarterback down, did he begin extending his arms after the pass was off? If so and the contact was forcible, it’s a foul. Also, defenders aren’t exonerated if they forcibly contact the quarterback’s head in their follow through just because they’re trying to bat down a pass.
This year’s NCAA mechanics manual states the priority for safety fouls against a quarterback under duress supersedes the potential for other fouls. In reality it has (or should have) always been that way. Now the philosophy is stated explicitly. So if, for example, my key, the tackle, is in jeopardy of holding a defensive end, but a linebacker shoots the gap and threatens the quarterback, I must leave the tackle and possibly miss a hold, to process the action by the linebacker.
One time I didn’t sense a blitz, stayed too long with the tackle and didn’t shift my focus back to the quarterback until he had been nailed and was out cold. A colleague had his picture appear in Sports Illustrated because he stayed with the tackle and missed a defender turn a quarterback’s head around on a facemask foul. That is what the mechanics language is getting at. The NFHS doesn’t address the issue of priorities, but it seems clear that is the expectation for high school as well.
My situation also shows it can be useful to the referee to scan the defense before the snap to try to see where the pressure is likely to come from. A defensive end with no blocker in front of him or an overloaded defense in the center-guard area ought to put us on high alert.
The referee must stay with the quarterback after he throws the ball until there’s no threat of a foul. Once, I followed the football’s flight because I didn’t think a defender was near the quarterback only to hear a crash, look back and see him sprawled on the ground. We also get into priorities in grounding situations. The referee can’t sacrifice quarterback safety to see where the ball lands and whether there are eligible receivers in the area, so he must rely on the crew to come in after the play ends and give him that information. That will likely mean a late flag, but that’s OK.
Finally, we must set a high bar from the start. Early in my college career, I had a game where the offense couldn’t block and the defense was all over the quarterback all night long. I let too many marginal hits go early on, which obviously sent the message that anything goes because the defense hit a little later and then a little later still. After I finally tightened the screws, I ended up with five roughing penalties. I’ve no doubt I would have had to call fewer fouls if I had clamped down from the start. I never made that mistake again.
Jon Bible is a replay official in the Southeastern Conference. A resident of Austin, Texas, he formerly officiated collegiate and pro football.