Car rides, coronavirus protocols and … new whistles? Why NFL officials enter an unknown season

  • ESPN.com national NFL writer
  • ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
  • Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008

If you knew where to look this summer, you might have spotted an NFL game official working out on a community football field. Some wanted to know what it felt like to wear a mask while breathing heavily. Others wanted to see if a face shield would fall off when they ran. A few tested the handheld electronic whistles they have been given the option to use for the 2020 NFL season.

Then there was the mental gymnastics of officiating amid the coronavirus pandemic. Would it be safe to dive into a pile of players to find a loose ball? Should they stand between two players who are fighting? What if an angry coach approaches, spittle flying into the air?

While NFL players and coaches have spent the past six weeks together, acclimating to their new normal in training camp, officials mostly have gone it alone. Their annual camp visits were canceled for safety reasons, as was the entire NFL preseason. They have conducted regular video conferences with league executives and crew members, but no one has met in person. In a symbol of our times, crews will gather together for the first time next week — on the bus that takes them to their first regular-season game.

“We’re still dealing with the unknown,” said retired referee Scott Green, who now is the executive director of the NFL Referees Association. “We don’t know yet how it’s going to go. We really didn’t have a dry run. There was no training camp, there was no preseason. We just haven’t had an opportunity for our people to actually test it all out.”

Even without the pandemic, the NFL’s officiating department has experienced a face-changing offseason. It has a new three-man leadership group, with senior vice president of officiating Perry Fewell and senior vice president of training and development Walt Anderson joining senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron on equal footing. The league parted ways with six on-field officials through annual attrition, and five others opted out because of concerns about the coronavirus. Their replacements were hired from the college ranks, meaning that about 10% of this season’s officials have never worked a regular-season game in the NFL.

The league turned down requests to interview any officials or members of the leadership team. But people who maintain close contact with the group, including Green and ESPN officiating analyst John Parry, provided a glimpse of the challenges that officials will face this season. They largely share the view held around the league on playing amid the pandemic: It’s only fair to expect some turbulence from the unique set of circumstances.

“The officials I’ve talked to have given the league very high accolades on being organized throughout all of this,” Parry said. “Walt and Al and Perry, to the best of their ability with this pandemic, have done everything in their power to get their people ready to go next week. But a lot of the normal prep work just gets lost in this.

“Think of it: A first-year official coming into the league, he’s going to be getting on the bus on that first Sunday morning and saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the side judge. I’m so-and-so. I’m talking introductory meetings on the way to their first game together. And that’s a small part of the adjustments they’re having to make.”

From four-hour car rides to developing new mechanics, from mixing crews based on weekly geography efficiencies to administering a previously unreported reinterpretation of the illegal contact rule, NFL officials will navigate an entirely new terrain in 2020. It breaks down roughly into three categories: additional protocols, unfamiliar equipment and a fresh level of inexperience.

Protocol and assignment changes

In a normal season, an officiating crew would gather the day before a game at a designated hotel. According to Parry, the crew would spend most of the day in meetings, reviewing video of the upcoming opponents and making technical “game plans” for how each member of the crew would cover various formations and unique circumstances presented by the teams. Most would eat lunch and dinner together, and also gather the morning of the game for a nonsecular devotional service.

The NFL’s coronavirus protocols have eliminated most of that routine. Game assignments will be based on home geography, and the NFL is hoping that up to 70% of officials will be able to drive — albeit, four or five hours in some cases, according to Green — to work each weekend. They have been instructed to sequester themselves in their hotel rooms and conduct meetings by video conference. Parry said it’s reasonable to assume that crews will be “mixed weekly” based on geography, similar to how the NFL staffs playoff games.

“So you’re not working with the same crew week by week by week,” Parry said. “Mechanically, they should be able to do that, but I know I always felt I wanted the crew I worked with for 17 weeks. We may not be the best crew, but I know how each one of those officials will react and I know how to work and manage the game with them. This year, they might not get to know skills, mannerisms and body language of the people they work with. That will be lost, and it means something.”

According to the agreement reached between the league and the NFLRA, all officials will be tested twice a week: once at their home or business midweek, and once the day before the game using point of care tests. It is in some ways a more complicated structure than those used by players and coaches at their team facilities; the NFL had to hire testers in the home cities of 138 game and replay officials across the country.

The testing began this week and encountered a few problems, according to sources, with some testers not showing up. Ultimately, if an official doesn’t get tested in time or produces a positive result, he or she can be replaced in one of several ways. There usually is at least one crew who isn’t assigned a game on a given weekend. Its members will be on alert each week. Crew members from Thursday or Monday night games might be asked to work a second game as well. And the NFL also has developed mechanics to use smaller crews of six or even five members, rather than the usual seven, on the field.

Masks, whistles and spit

Unlike players, officials will be required to wear some form of face covering while on the field. The possibilities include a mask, a neck gaiter that pulls over the mouth and nose and/or a face shield. The adjustment will be significant for officials, who cover more ground during a game than you might think.

“It’s hard to imagine a mask not impacting officials when they’re winded,” Parry said. “But that’s just the nature of this season.”

According to Green, some officials have said they hope they can take off their masks during timeouts and television breaks to better control their breathing and cool off.

“And in some places,” Green said, “that might be tough regardless. Tampa and Miami in September can be tough from a physical standpoint, even without a mask.”

The most significant potential equipment change, however, is a handheld electronic whistle that would replace the traditional breath-powered model. The electronic version is designed to fit into the palm of a hand and is activated by a thumb button. The NFL has made it optional, but it’s not clear whether the traditional whistle would work underneath a mask.

The NFL ordered “several hundred” electronic whistles from a company called Fox40, according to founder and CEO Ron Foxcroft. Individual teams also have placed orders for their coaches to use in practice. Foxcroft estimated that his company has shipped more than 100,000 whistles worldwide during the pandemic and have another 80,000 on back-order. But the current version was not intended for long-term use in professional sports; it was developed for institutions that wanted multiple employees to share a whistle, such as lifeguards, train conductors and search-and-rescue operations. The device runs on traditional batteries and is not waterproof.

“Our electronic whistle was never designed for sports,” Foxcroft said. “But then the pandemic hit, and that changed everything.”

Fox40 is working on an updated version that will be water-resistant and run on a rechargeable battery. It should be ready for the NFL playoffs. In the meantime, NFL officials will be left to determine whether they can make a bigger mechanical adjustment than you might imagine.

Many officials wrap a lanyard around the fingers of their dominant hand to keep track of downs, while holding a whistle in their mouth for most of the game. Parry kept the whistle in place so consistently that it inflicted permanent damage to his bottom front teeth; he eventually switched to a rubber-tipped model. Activating the electronic handheld model, while also tracking downs in the same hand, “will definitely be an adjustment,” said Foxcroft, a retired basketball official.

Indeed, the referee, Parry said, will face a particularly vexing set of changes.

“The best way to describe it,” Parry said, “is to think of a referee who has a battery pack on his belt, which powers the microphone for the stadium announcements. He has the [official-to-official communication equipment] on his belt. He has a beanbag on his belt. He has a flag on his belt. He has an earpiece and a microphone that goes in his ear and hangs down near the mouth. He has a microphone on his lapel for stadium announcements. … Prior to each snap, I can tell you that I religiously touched each one of those products. You want to know that they are where they are supposed to be, so when you press the button that you need, it’s where you wanted it. So when you add a mask, potentially add a shield, an electronic whistle and just the mannerisms that go with it, that’s going to be something that’s a distraction.

“Holding a whistle in your left hand or your right hand, if you’re not used to it, these things will be distraction. It’s not that they can’t be overcome. But to jump into Week 1 without having the ability to practice and get used to that? It will have an impact on their ability to be focused on the game.”

One particular area to watch, Green noted, is instances when officials get into close quarters with players or coaches. The NFL’s pandemic ethos has been that it will be impossible to maintain appropriate physical distance during a game. But like everyone else, officials have lived in a country that for months has emphasized 6 feet of space between people. Will they react any differently?

“There are just a lot of little unknown things,” Green said. “If there’s a fumble, are you going to jump in there and dig it out and find who has the ball? What if two guys start mouthing off to each other? Normally we would try to get in there and break that up. I guess one approach is that everybody out there has been tested twice, so you’re probably safer out on a football field than you are in the general public.

“You want to get to basic football as quickly as possible and do your job like you’ve always done. But say a coach gets up into your ear and all of that kind of stuff. We tell our people, get away from them. But that’s not the instinct. You’re going to respond. So much is going to be different, and we don’t even know all the things that will be different yet.”

Downfield inexperience

The NFL’s total of 11 first-year officials is high but not unprecedented. In the past 60 years, according to the website Football Zebras, there have been nine seasons with a higher number, most recently in 2014. But 2020 will be the first instance without a preseason, a valuable time for adjusting to the speed of the NFL game.

Parry recalled the second play of the first preseason game in his career, before the 2000 season. Working as a field judge on a passing play, he awarded the ball to the defense after what appeared to be an interception.

“Unbeknownst to me,” Parry said, “the defender had gone out of bounds, then come back in bounds, reestablished himself and intercepted it. I had no idea where he came from. That’s how fast things were moving around me.”

Line judge Ron Baynes stepped in, correctly ruled the defender an ineligible receiver and overturned the play. He then put his arm around Parry and said: “Welcome to the National Football League.”

“I knew someone had gone past me to my left,” Parry said. “But I never anticipated he could come back onto the field and make a play like that. Because of his athletic skill, he was able to stop and accelerate and come back on the field and make the interception. There’s 22 guys like that on an NFL field. In college, maybe there are five or six. These new officials have never seen this kind of speed. I’m sure they were all very good college officials, but it’s a huge jump, and they’re literally being thrown into the fire. They have had no chance to get their feet wet.”

Based on initial assignments, six of the 11 will man positions that cover the deep part of the field during passing plays. Overall, that group will include 14 officials who have been hired in the past three years. That is a notable level of inexperience when considering a philosophical shift the league apparently is pursuing this season.

Clarity for illegal contact

Although it did not attempt any major rule changes or significant points of emphasis for 2020, both of which are announced publicly, the NFL has instructed officials on a new interpretation of illegal contact that could spur an elevated number of flags early in the season. Illegal contact fouls, long a point of contention between coaches and the officiating department, dropped by about 25% in 2019 compared to 2018. Based on his conversations within the community, Parry said the 2020 interpretation will be more literal.

“The rule basically says that you cannot contact a receiver beyond five yards unless you’re protecting yourself from the impeding contact that the receiver creates,” Parry said. “So if a receiver is running free and not going into a defender, and the receiver is beyond five yards, the defender cannot step toward that receiver and touch or contact the receiver. In years past, we were taught that we wanted to see force. We want to see a redirection of the route based on the force. This year, as it has been presented, it’s contact. If you touch or contact the receiver beyond five yards as it stands today, they want that to be called.”

Points of emphasis and new rule interpretations tend to level off as the season progresses, but it could take longer in 2020 with the lack of preseason games, as well as the relatively high number of inexperienced officials involved. Expectations should be calibrated accordingly.

“I’m sure there will be screw-ups somewhere along the line,” Green said. “Whether it’s with travel, testing, whatever. No one has ever done this before. We all understand that.”

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