No Longer Your Dad’s NFL
Shawn Hochuli—the son of Ed—is all but guaranteed to be working on Sundays this fall, just as officiating undergoes a major overhaul ... plus, Johnny Football’s pro day, Jim Kelly’s latest battle, the sad saga of Mark Sanchez and more
ORLANDO, Fla. — The news here this week at the annual NFL meetings at a ritzy Ritz in central Florida? Officiating and an effort to create a more virtuous culture. That’s what you’ll be reading and hearing about from the meetings. Not expanding the playoffs from 12 teams to 14, which won’t happen until at least 2015. Not the push by the Patriots and some others to move the PAT from the 2-yard line to the 25. So that means officiating czar Dean Blandino is going to be the star of these meetings, not Roger Goodell or the rulesmeisters, Rich McKay or Jeff Fisher.
I’ll get to the virtue stuff in a bit. At the risk of writing too much about officiating, I’m going to do it again this week. The league has been working hard behind the scenes to improve the consistency of the replay system, as well as the communication between the seven officials on the field during games. In a 30-minute conversation with Blandino on Sunday night, he told me that members of the league’s 17 officiating crews will be able to talk to each other on the field during games.
“We’re going to implement an official-to-official communications system, so all seven officials can communicate wirelessly,” Blandino said. “Each official will have an earpiece, a microphone, and just a little radio pack where they can communicate in a closed system, encrypted.
“We’ve tested this the last two years, and we feel it gives us better communication, more efficient communication pre-snap—when you’re talking about coverages, especially downfield when you have three downfield officials. Who’s covering what receiver? Now they read the formation, they decide which receiver they’re going to cover, but there’s no check and balance. They’re 30, 40 yards away from the other officials they might need to talk to. Now they can communicate. ‘I’ve got the widest guy, I’ve got the second guy inside.’ ”
The benefit after the play, Blandino said, is that a back judge who sees pass interference from behind the line of scrimmage will no longer have to run 25 or 30 yards to tell the referee whom the flag is on. The system is not an open mike [that proved chaotic during preseason trials] but rather a push-to-talk system. In my example, the back judge would push his button and say to the ref, “I’ve got a DPI [defensive pass interference] on 24 Baltimore,” and save a few seconds. Said Blandino, “It’s just a natural progression in communications improvement.”
That’s an inside-football change most fans won’t notice. The league hopes the major replay proposal gets passed—and that fans won’t notice this one either. Most often, fans only notice replay when it is administered differently by different crews. If the replay tweak that the Competition Committee hopes to see passed is indeed approved—allowing the NFL officiating department to have a hand in replay decisions—consistency should improve in 2014.
The replay proposal would work this way: Once the game referee announces on the field that he will be reviewing a play, a communications line from the league office will go live in the ref’s ear. On the other end he’ll have either Blandino or the NFL’s senior director of officiating, Alberto Riveron, a former ref. (In the case of simultaneous replays, Blandino can talk to one ref and Riveron the other. Blandino said there was never an instance in 2013 of three replays occurring simultaneously without the benefit of a TV timeout that enabled at least one of them to be put on hold for a few seconds, while the other two could be properly adjudicated.)
“Between me and Al Riveron,” Blandino said, “we feel we can adjudicate multiple reviews going on at once. Over 65 percent of our reviews go to TV break anyway, so we have a built-in two-minute window [to help us].”
One big benefit of communicating with the referee before he goes under the hood is that another set of eyes can use the extra time to study the play and advise him. While a coach throws a challenge flag, and while the referee goes over to hear what the coach wants to challenge—and while the ref gets into position and announces the challenge—Blandino might have already had the chance to see three or four replays. So as the ref jogs over to the monitor to see the replays for himself and judge the call, he can have two men who sit in judgment of all refs, Blandino and Riveron, scout the play to advise him on the best angles to watch.
“We can start reviewing it even before the challenge is initiated,” Blandino said. “Once a challenge is initiated, we would be in communication with the replay official. What is the issue? What are the angles we want to show the ref? Once the ref is done talking to the coach and making the announcement, now the ref can be a part of that conversation. We feel a lot of times we can have it set up and a direction for the referee before he even gets [under the hood].”
The issue came to the fore with a bad replay decision by ref Jeff Triplette last year in Cincinnati on a close play at the goal line. “That call obviously was a mistake,” said Blandino. “We have 17 referees and obviously we have a standard that’s consistent with visual evidence. But maybe all of our 17 referees … they’re not going to be 100 percent consistent. We know that some people may interpret certain plays a certain way. We feel from a standardization point and a consistency point, there’s a handful of people in New York who can oversee the process. We’re going to make more consistent decisions. In every review we will be part of the conversation.”
The NFL handled 423 replay reviews last year, about 1.6 per game. In the busiest time slot, early in the afternoon on Sundays, there can be as many as 10 games going on at once. It’s going to be fast and furious, and the officiating command center had better hope three reviews—or more—never happen simultaneously out of commercial.
Now for the logical question: When will the league go to centralized officiating review out of New York, with all replay reviews being handled in-house by Blandino’s staff? Hockey does it that way. Baseball will start doing it that way this year.
“We want to look at how the consult process goes,” Blandino said. “Maybe there’s some unintended consequences of what we’re proposing. In hockey they have far fewer reviews. They all revolve around goals, for the most part. In our game, the biggest issue is inside the last two minutes, when the replay official has to initiate a review of a play. To do that in New York, how would we initiate a review of the play without actually being there to see it take place? That’s probably the biggest hurdle to going to a fully centralized operation.”
The NHL has shown that the disconnect between the ice and Toronto is unimportant; all that matters is getting the play right. Eventually, I think the NFL moves replay review to New York, run by Blandino. The first step is making sure Blandino and Riveron don’t exacerbate the inconsistency of replay reviews by making a Triplette-like error. You never know, because of the whole human-error thing. But I think the extra set of eyes in New York will help the process.
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Guns Junior Is on the Way
The worst-kept secret around the NFL is no long under wraps: If he passes his physical and his background check, Shawn Hochuli, son of Ed “Biceps of Stone” Hochuli, will make his NFL officiating debut this fall. That’s what Blandino told me Sunday night.
“We’ve hired or extended offers to some of the officials in our advanced development program,” said Blandino. “But it is contingent on a physical exam, and then we take it to the next level with the background check. But once that clears, yes, we have offered Shawn a position.”
“Will he be on his dad’s crew?” I asked.
“That remains to be seen,” Blandino said. “I’m leaning in one direction, but we’ll see.”
Ed Hochuli, 63, enters his 25th NFL officiating season this fall. His son has been a back judge and referee in the Pac-12 and has been a prospect in the league’s developmental program. No word if he’s as verbose (hey, I like the verbosity!) as his dad. And though he looks to be in good shape, Shawn’s no match for the pumped-up Ed Hochuli.
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The league’s coaches and general managers will hear about team-building and sportsmanship this morning from a man named Dov Seidman, an ethicist and author of HOW: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything. That’s in line with the initiative Goodell and others in the league are working on, to improve the locker-room culture and ensure that no Incognito-Martin scandals happen again.
Seidman was the keynote speaker addressing the league Sunday evening—the NFL has been big on stars like Bill Clinton and Condoleezza Rice in the past, but Seidman’s appearance was fitting this year because of the recent bullying scandal—and he hit some of the notes you’d expect. “Command and control as a way of running a business is gone,” said one league veteran who heard Seidman on Sunday night. “Collaboration is in now … Pete Carroll’s way, we’re all in this together. I think it was a good message on building values and a workplace culture on doing what’s right.”
Expect to hear that as a refrain when owners and club officials talk about the lessons of the week. There’s no doubt the league will soon hand down whatever discipline is coming from the Miami bullying case, and I’m told it’s going to be instructive and treatment-based rather than simply punitive.
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