SEC officials adjusting to hurry-up offense one crisp jog at a time

Friday May 30th, 2014

The recent rise in popularity of up-tempo offense has caused referees to alter their operating procedure.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

DESTIN, Fla. -- The increased popularity of the up-tempo offense has introduced a new term into college football's lexicon. The huddle is dead. All hail the Crisp Jog.

What does "crisp jog" mean in the context of a football game? About the same thing it means when it involves sneakers and a music mix that includes several of Survivor's greatest hits. The important part is who is doing the jogging and how consistently he does it.

On Thursday, SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw broke down several of the ways in which the defense-stretching, clock-defying offenses favored by Oregon, Oklahoma, Auburn, Clemson and many others have changed the way officials must operate. In order to ensure a fair, consistent game, officials have altered their procedures. This is where the method of ambulation mentioned above comes into play. In every FBS conference, when the umpire spots the ball, he is not to sprint toward the line of scrimmage. He is not to walk toward the line of scrimmage.

"We expect a crisp jog," Shaw said.

What exactly defines a crisp jog? With apologies to the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, Shaw knows it when he sees it. He is working with his counterparts in other leagues to make sure they all see the same thing so their officials move at a similar clip.

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The debate over pace of play provided some handy offseason yakking fodder a few months ago before ending with no actual changes. Yet the stripe-shirted folks in charge of administering the rules still must continue to adapt to the evolution of the offense. Basically, they want every team in every league to experience the same pacing from the officials so coaches know what to expect from week to week. Spot the ball too slow, and it drives the offensive coordinator crazy. Spot the ball too fast, and it drives the defensive coordinator on the other side of the field mad. Hence, where the crisp jog and a host of other adjustments come in. These include experimentation with an eighth official and increased pressure on replay officials.

The modern up-tempo offense was a byproduct of the 2008 decision to switch from a 25-second play clock -- started after the referee's ready-for-play signal -- to a 40-second play clock started after the end of the previous play. The offense happened to be a hit with fans, the majority of whom liked the increase in scoring frequency, and offensive-minded coaches, who loved the fact that it wore out defenses and forced defensive coordinators to narrow their options. Given its popularity and absent data that it increases injury risk*, the up-tempo offense probably won't be legislated out of existence -- no matter how hard coaches who prefer a slower tempo try.

*There haven't been any definitive studies yet because the offenses are so new. And some of the limited, non-scientific data available actually suggest up-tempo schemes -- which tend to spread the field -- might be safer than creating a giant pile of humanity between the hashmarks with a 30-second rest between plays.

But try they will. Shaw spent Wednesday with the SEC's football coaches, who occupy both sides of the aisle on the issue. Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin want to go fast. Alabama's Nick Saban and Arkansas' Bret Bielema want to slow things down.

"It's a Democrat-Republican issue," Shaw said, declining to assign a political party to a style of play. "There are some Democrats and some Republicans and they're probably never going to change sides." (Maybe that makes Florida's Will Muschamp, who advocated for a slower pace until he hired coordinator Kurt Roper to run an up-tempo offense, the league's resident Libertarian.)

SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said he expects league referees to move at a crisp jog.
Dave Martin/AP

Even though every game won't feature an up-tempo offense, the scheme has forced officials to alter the way they manage the game. This season, the ACC and the SEC will follow in the footsteps of the heavily up-tempo Big 12 by experimenting with an eighth official. Like the Big 12, the ACC and SEC will place the eighth official opposite the referee in the offensive backfield. This new official, called the center judge, will spot the ball and allow the umpire -- who lines up near the linebackers and who sets the ball on a seven-man crew -- to pay more attention to the action on the line of scrimmage. The Big 12 experiment used an official floating between crews. In the SEC, referee Matt Loeffler's crew will get the eighth official, and that crew will work games involving all 14 teams during the 2014 season.

SEC coaches are happy for the extra set of eyes. Muschamp remembers playing Oklahoma while running the Texas defense and watching officials struggle to match the pace of top-fuel coordinator Kevin Wilson, who ran the Sooners' offense at the time.

"The ball was snapped three or four times and there were three and four people moving," Muschamp said. "And one time the linesman was jogging out to me with his back to the ball, and the ball was being snapped. Is that really what we want? I think all we want is a good administration of the game."

Shaw admits that in addition to the tempo, the increase in four- and five-receiver formations puts pressure on the referee and the umpire by taking the other five officials down the field. "If those five guys are out, every one of those officials is occupied," Shaw said. "What you've got is a referee and an umpire taking care of the rest of the game."

That pressure can be relieved by the addition of a center judge. If the experiment works, Shaw believes every FBS league will add an eighth official in the next few years.

The officials can control the pace of the game more effectively and take away some of the inherent offensive advantage by enforcing the existing rules. One complaint from defensive coaches involves the rule stating ineligible players can't be more than three yards beyond the line of scrimmage when a past-the-line-of-scrimmage forward pass is thrown. Officials rarely flag teams for having ineligible receivers downfield, but one offensive trend has given them the cause to call it more often. Offensive coordinators have added more run-pass packages -- plays that give the quarterback a choice to run or pass but only instruct the linemen to block the play as a run. In many up-tempo offenses, the linemen fire off the ball as they would on a run play, even though the quarterback intends to throw downfield.

It would be terribly easy in this situation for a guard, assigned to block a linebacker, to venture four or five yards past the line of scrimmage, which happens relatively often. The penalty rarely gets called, and if it did, offenses would have to adjust their play calls to ensure they didn't get penalized. Linemen would have to get a protection call from the sideline to use in case the quarterback decided to throw. The quarterback would need a code he could communicate to the linemen to let them know whether to block for a behind-the-line-of-scrimmage exchange or a beyond-the-line-of-scrimmage exchange. That might add only two seconds to the process, but it would make a difference for the defense and the offense. Plus, the officials would be enforcing a rule already on the books -- which is their job. Unfortunately, to call such situations properly, it might take a ninth official standing on the sideline three yards beyond the line of scrimmage and staying there until the ball is released.

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Meanwhile, the up-tempo offenses have changed the way the one off-field official operates. The on-field zebras used to gig their replay counterparts because they got to spend their Saturdays in catered, air-conditioned press boxes. Now, there are days when they wouldn't dare trade jobs.

"That seat today is the hottest seat you can imagine," Shaw said.

The one hard-and-fast rule of replay reviews is that once the next play is snapped, the last play is gone and no longer reviewable. So, picture this scenario following a controversial play.

"Imagine you're working Ole Miss and Auburn," Shaw said. "They're both up-tempo, and whether they snap it or not, they're at the line six or seven seconds into the play clock. You can't wait until they snap it. ... You have to make a decision. Am I going to stop this play or not?"

That makes for a white-knuckle day for replay officials. Remember, if that official doesn't call for a review of one missed call, the entire crew will get savaged on television and social media. The reputation of the crew's conference will be adversely affected by that one snap decision. People accept that an on-field official might miss the occasional bang-bang play. There is no such forgiveness for the official in the booth. They must balance identifying potential missed calls with avoiding unnecessary stoppages that ruin the flow of the game.

"When those guys leave," Shaw said, "they're spent."

Shaw has no position on the rules governing up-tempo offenses. If Division I or the FBS conferences decide to form a competition committee, that body would likely look into the rules as currently constituted and discuss whether they need to be changed or simply called and administered differently. But there is no doubt that the high-octane offenses have taxed officials as much as they have taxed defenses. And just like the defenses, the officials keep developing new methods to manage them. Those methods start with a crisp jog.

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