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What Football Officials Do Between Plays

As a bit of a followup to my post about the basics of American football, and in defense of officials in general, I thought it might be helpful and/or interesting.

Viewers generally "get" what happens during plays - determining rules violations of 22 players all in motion while also moving and processing a rule book of a few hundred game definitions and rules, but what happens when the play is over?

We don't stand around playing with our whistles... there's a lot to do once a play ends and before another play starts.

This is an official's general "to do" list. This applies to all levels of football, except where indicated as applicable to high school (NFHS).

And, by the way, sometimes we have mere seconds to do this, if a team is running a "hurry up" offense.

    1. Make sure players separate and return to their side of the field

    Lots of bad things can happen if eyes aren't on the players and they are aware you're looking.

    2. If there is a foul, make sure the penalty is enforced properly

    Yardage, where the foul is enforced from, including where the ball is spotted both the yard line and the lateral spot of the field (some fouls result in the ball being spotted X yards back from where the foul occurred laterally).

    Also, whether the game clock starts or not when the referee marks the ball ready for play.

    3. Confirm what the next down is

    Hold up the number of fingers, and check with the other officials. If someone has a different down, call timeout and confer / correct.

    4. Make sure the down box has the correct down

    This is the 'final' step in confirming the next down, and where a lot of errors can occur. You NEVER want to get the down wrong.

    5. If it is a first down, make sure the chains are spotted correctly

    Not just the chains, but also the clip which goes on the long yard line (10 yard lines) nearest the back stake of the chains.

    6. If there is a measurement for first down, everyone has a job

    Linesman (down judge) grabs the clip, walks the chain crew to the spot. A deep wing hold the ball in place. The umpire spots the forward stake. The referee rules whether or not there's a first down. Others will keep players clear of the area and keep the sideline folks on the sidelines.

    7. Game clock status

    Should the game clock be running or not? Is the actual clock correct (running or not)?

    8. Play clock status

    40 seconds or 25 seconds? Most plays are 40, but after change of possession, time out, or a penalty, it will usually be 25.

    9. Count the players

    Every play. That's what they're doing when they do a "thumbs up" or a fist extended - "I've got 11 players."

    This includes making sure that they've entered / withdrawn as a player correctly. In HS a replaced player has 3 seconds to leave the field from when a substitute comes in.

    10. Confirm offense's numbering is legal

    There needs to be five players numbered between 50-79, except on a punt or field goal where the snapper (on all downs) and others on the line (on 4th down) can have any number. P.S. - if that's the case, officials need to note that because those players are generally not eligible to go out for or touch/catch a pass.

    11. Confirm offense's formation is legal

    Four players behind the line of scrimmage, which means that if you have 11 total players, you have 11 on the line. If an offensive team only has ten (or less), the play is still legal as long as they have four in the backfield (NFHS).

    12. Identify your key(s)

    Every position has a different player(s) to key (focus) on during the play. Those keys will generally vary during the play - but initial keys are - referee > quarterback, umpire > offensive and defensive line, short wings > interior receiver(s) / running backs, deep wings > outside receivers / tight end.

    Keys will often change once the play starts, depending on if it is a running or a pass play, and player movement.

    13. Identify Possible Fouls at / before the snap

    Before the snap (can be prevents / remedied) - Illegal formation, too many players on the field, illegal shift, illegal motion.

    At the snap - false start, encroachment ("offsides" - defender lining up past their side of the ball), illegal formation.

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