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Football Officiating Changes Coming From The NCAA, Pac-12

Both the NCAA and the Pac-12 announced impending changes regarding football officiating this week.
A couple of changes were already approved, but are worth being reminded of, while others are proposals still in process.

Starting this fall, for the first time, unsportsmanlike penalties called on scoring plays before a player crosses the goal line will nullify the score, and be assessed from the spot, taking away the touchdown, or conversion.
Also, televisions also will be added/required in the coaches' boxes to help in determining whether the head coach should challenge a call.

The NCAA has also changed the intentional grounding rule. Intentional grounding will not be called if an eligible receiver is "in the area" of the pass. Previously, it could still be called if the receiver did not have a "reasonable" opportunity to catch the ball.

This obviously was and still is a judgment rule. Extensive differences of opinion about what was a reasonable opportunity to catch the ball, including by the officials, produced considerable inconsistency in enforcement, followed by considerable controversy. Now, it is the judgment of what constitutes "in the area" that will vary considerably.

On Thursday, the NCAA rules committee also proposed some additional changes, which will be voted on April, 14, but are expected to be approved.

Two of them are similar to NFL rules. One adopts a 10 second runoff after clock stopping penalties against the offense that occur in the final minute of each half, designed to prevent intentional penalties to gain, effectively, extra time outs.

Another change experiments with placing the umpire, who traditionally lines up behind the linebackers, behind the running backs.

Last year, the NFL made a similar move, though they do return the umpire to his traditional position in the middle of the defense under some circumstances. The move to the offensive backfield is for safety reasons, but has an impact on blocking and holding calls, primarily.

The NCAA has asked schools to experiment with moving the umpire during spring practice and spring games in order to assess whether it gives them better angles to make calls. This one may well go through several revisions.
Safety is the intended reason for a couple of other changes.

Players lined up within seven yards of the center on scrimmage plays are still permitted to block below the waist anywhere on the field, but the NCAA committee is recommending tighter restrictions on other players.

Receivers or running backs lined up outside the tackle box will be allowed to block below the waist only if they are blocking straight ahead, or toward the nearest sideline (to the block). If these players block toward the play, it will be a penalty.

The blocking change is a significant change to the basic philosophy on open field blocking, shifting from the traditional concept that blocking below the waist was legal, though with an extensive list of times when it couldn't be done, to the idea that blocking below the waist generally is illegal, except under certain circumstances.

Another change will assess a 5 yard penalty on the defense if three or more players try to overpower any one offensive lineman on place kicks. This too will be highly subjective.

One proposed change that was not approved would have required any player whose' helmet is dislodged to set out one play. Instead, further study and data gathering will be done.

The change to penalize the already unevenly, and often over-enforced, unsportsmanlike conduct on scoring plays more severely has the potential to exacerbate the existing problem of inconsistent, and sometimes outcome altering, decision making in this area.

These changes segway nicely to changes announced this week by the Pac-12 that are aimed at addressing long standing deficiencies with Pac-10 officiating.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott announced that Mike Pereira, the former Vice President of Officiating for the NFL, who served as a consultant to the Pac-10 during the 2010 season, will serve as the interim Coordinator of Football Officiating for the conference. Dave Cutaia, the long time holder of the same title for the Pac-10, has stepped down.

Pereira will lead a process of creating what Scott termed as a new organizational structure for the conference's football officiating program. New resources, best practices, and training tools will also be included, and Pereira will also be charged with implementing the changes.

"Like in other high priority areas, we have taken a fresh look at our program, and will be implementing a series of changes that are forward looking, innovative and take our program to the next level," Scott said. "The game and level of play is always improving, so it's essential that in the critical area of officiating, the program continue to evolve and improve as well."

Only time will tell if the overhaul will improve what has become a reoccurring problem for the conference. But given that the NCAA rules changes will change and intensify the importance of judgment, accuracy, and consistency, doing something just became even more critical.

Also, any measure of success with these changes in football could lead to similar steps being taken with basketball officiating, also long and painfully overdue. We can only hope.

Scott will be judged by how well he addresses the multitude of issues that built up prior to his arrival at the league offices. The fact that he is not only taking visible action, but also incorporating high level help, in this case Pereira, is another encouraging sign that Scott is not going to be satisfied with bandaging the problems. That said, Pereira was often criticized during his NFL days for not being transparent or responsive enough to officiating issues.

 No details were released, but some obvious changes ought to include not having any member of the officiating crew, including the replay crew, working a game involving his alma mater, and providing as a part of both the post game and the Monday review, the crew chief, for purposes of clarifying what the call was, and the relevant rules interpretation, for questioned calls. Another good addition would be better clarification of calls in stadium, in game, as well, particularly when there is some obscurity to the call. Often the confusion about unclear calls is as much a part of the problem as anything.