Communication is an essential quality of being a good official.
And, a good coach.
A perfect example of this occurred during a recent peewee football game. As the White Hat, I was charged with holding brief pregame meetings with the two coaches. About 20 minutes before kickoff, my umpire and I visited the home (Team A) bench for our introduction, to exchange any vital info needed to help administer the game, and ask about “special formations or unusual plays” the coach wanted us to be prepared for.
This coach added another wrinkle in a creative and intelligent way.
Clearly, he’d either watched his opponent in previous games or gotten his hands on some good video.
Let me preface this by noting in our association, at minor football games, we do not want coaches making accusations about other teams during a pregame. We don’t want them alleging that “Number 87 is a headhunter” or that Team B’s offensive formations “are always illegal.”
I’d had this discussion previously with this coach, and to his credit he respects it. But he did find a way to get a message across.
When asked whether he had anything unusual to alert us to, he mentioned a play he might run and explained how it would work. All good.
Then, he asked if he could “ask a question about a rule interpretation.” Guardedly (this often means a coach thinks last week’s crew screwed up, and wants us to verify it in a backhanded way), I said “yes.”
He asked me to explain “Unnecessary Roughness” when a player lowers his helmet into an opponent. He specifically asked about a situation in which a ballcarrier goes out on a sweep, sees a defender and at the last second before contact drops the helmet to use as a battering ram.
There is a huge emphasis on hits to the head and with the head, these days in football. And it’s good. Your brain is important, and we need to protect it.
So, I explained that if a player leads with the helmet in the open field, and makes initial contact with an opponent using any part of the helmet, we need to strongly consider calling a UR penalty.
It’s a pretty severe call — 15 yards AND possibly loss of the down — but we need to strictly police these acts to protect ALL the players. Including the player delivering the blow.
The coach thanked me and things proceeded as usual. Met the other coach, held our coin toss with the captains, kicked off and started playing.
I had a sneaking suspicion I knew why he’d posed question. About five minutes into the first quarter, that suspicion was verified.
The Team B quarterback was a sizable lad, and he had a mean streak. Not dirty, just one of those guys who plays on the edge. Every play. The kind of kid you LOVE as a coach, even if he occasionally goes a bit beyond the line.
He took the ball from centre, ran out to the left side of the offence and turned it up on a keeper. Just as a defender went to hit him several yards downfield in the “open field”, the QB lowered his helmet toward the defender and caught him a glancing blow with the crown, driving him backward and gaining several more yards before he was tackled.
As this was a peewee game in a developmental league, we had three officials on the field. I had the QB as he crossed the line. The umpire had point of attack. Our head linesman was on the other side of the field watching for crap behind us. There was no way the other officials could see the initial point of contact.
But from where I stood, it was an easy and obvious call. I saw the helmet contact to the defender and immediately threw my flag for a helmet hit.
After the play ended, I also went over to the player, to ensure he understood exactly what the call was and that he would not repeat that action. An ounce of prevention, in this case, is worth a lot more than a pound of cure.
As we administered the penalty and I signalled UR “Spearing” to the benches, I could see the Team A coach nodding. He felt he’d sent his message, without making an accusation, or creating a confrontation.
There is a danger here that some coaches and fans will see this as “getting” or “influencing” a call. That’s not true. If the QB hadn’t hit the defender with his helmet, there would’ve been no penalty. Same thing with a formation — if it’s not illegal, there isn’t going to be a penalty flag (or at least, there shouldn’t be).
It’s about the coach using his head, being constructive and creative and showing a willingness to work the the game officials.
The morale is there is more than one way to get a message across. We don’t want pregame coaches’ meetings to digress into long lists of things coaches don’t like about their opponents, so we don’t allow those comments. But, with a simple change of phrasing, you can still impart what you feel are valuable information or messages.
Those comments or questions will be received much more readily.
And, I freely admit, you also earn the respect of the game officials. It won’t “get” you a call, but it sure helps to build a better relationship.
This leads to a better outcome for everyone — especially the players.
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