Carl Johnson scored a huge promotion since the end of the 2009 season, jumping from line judge to the position of NFL V.P. of officiating. At a meeting with NBC personnel on Saturday afternoon to discuss changes to the rules for the coming season, Johnson spoke extensively about the new placement of the umpire in the offensive backfield.
Previously, the umpire at all times was positioned on the defensive side of the ball behind the line of scrimmage, putting him at risk of being struck and injured by offensive and defensive players.
Johnson said that the rule can still be tweaked, with no vote needed from the Competition Committee or ownership. He also said that a 5.5-hour meeting of the officials in Dallas on Friday resulted in no further changes to the rule, and that the new approach worked “very well.”
He acknowledged that the real test will come when an offense shifts to hurry-up mode without substituting players. Johnson explained that many of the umpires have lost weight and gotten into better shape, so that they can move quickly to their position after placing the ball at the line of scrimmage for the next play.
During the preseason, the Colts drew multiple illegal snap penalties for starting a play before the umpire was in place. Johnson said that the experience was “beneficial” to the process; since then, the league has moved the umpire from 15 yards behind the ball to 12 yards, and the league has authorized the side judge and the line judge to signal to the quarterback when the ball is ready for play.
But while Johnson expressed optimism that the officials and teams will adapt to the new procedures and that additional changes will be made as needed, he explained that, no matter how well the new rule is implemented, the umpire will continue to return to his position on the defensive side of the ball with two minutes left in the half, with five minutes left in the game, and whenever the offense is inside the opponents’ five yard line.
And that’s the issue that continues to give us the most concern. If safety concerns compel a change to the process, those safety concerns should supersede any and all game situations. If the prior approach can be tolerated for seven of 60 minutes in each game, the process shouldn’t change at all.
We also think that the league needs to account for the reality that, on certain occasions with less than two minutes remaining in the half or five minutes remaining in the game, the offense won’t be trying to rush down the field — and thus the umpire can retreat to the position that the league regards as safer. For example, the quarterback could indicate his intention to attempt to snap the ball quickly with fewer than two minutes left in the first half or fewer than five minutes left in the game, and the umpire would then stay on the defensive side of the ball. Otherwise, he’d go to the safer place.
Maybe that’s the best outcome, regardless of the amount of time on the clock. The umpire would stay on the defensive side of the ball when the quarterback makes the signal or gesture indicating an intent to use a quick-snap, no-huddle offense, and the umpire would head to his new default position when the quarterback doesn’t.