Umpires: Small change, big impact

Fred Bryan and the NFL's umpires will be moved from behind the defensive line to the offensive backfield in 2010. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

It was easy to spot the headlines last week at the NFL owners meetings: Overtime and the Donovan McNabb trade saga. We've covered both relatively thoroughly here on this blog, so in lieu of a weekend mailbag, I'd like to take a look at a less alluring development that plenty of coaches nevertheless think will have a big impact on the game next season.

You might have heard the basics: The league has moved the position of the umpire from about five yards behind the defensive line to about 12 yards deep in the offensive backfield. Final details have yet to be worked out, but it's expected the umpire and referee essentially will flank the quarterback pocket. (I know this because Minnesota coach Brad Childress excitedly drew me a diagram on the final day of the meetings.)

The motivating factor is preserving the health of umpires, who were knocked down more than 100 times in 2009. But I spoke with two NFC North coaches about the change, Childress and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, and both believe it will help the passing game and perhaps offer quarterbacks better protection as well.

"It's a great change," McCarthy said.

My first reaction was that teams will lose the opportunity to run pick plays using the umpire, which we all know happened regularly. But as Childress pointed out, "that area will be wide open now." Think of it like the end of a highway traffic jam caused by a lane closure. As soon as the lane opens, everyone starts flying. Receivers will be able to sprint through routes without worrying about colliding with the referee.

"That's a big deal to the passing game," Childress said. I asked him if it was a bigger deal than losing pick plays. "I think it is," Childress said. "Definitely."

Among other things, it will remove a stationary object from a quarterback's vision. McCarthy noted that that plenty of incomplete passes over the years have resulted from quarterbacks trying to throw around or over the umpire.

"You have to coach your quarterback," McCarthy said. "I've seen [Joe] Montana hit the guy right in the nose with the ball. You've got to play like he's not there because I've also seen quarterbacks miss the throw or get hit."

Logic suggests at least three additional consequences of having two officials in the backfield:

  • More offensive holding penalties

  • Less defensive holding penalties (when a defensive lineman holds an offensive lineman to prevent him from pulling)

  • Even closer scrutiny of contact with quarterbacks

You might not be able to stomach many more roughing-the-passer penalties. But the Packers, for one, finished the 2009 season convinced that officials missed a number of additional instances involving quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Two came during their overtime playoff loss at Arizona. One was a blow to Rodgers' head, while another featured contact with his facemask on the final play of the game.

(Related aside: During a conversation about the new overtime rule with Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson, I noted it wouldn't have helped the Packers in the game. The Packers got the first possession of the extra period, after all. Thompson's humorous response: "I'm not going to say anything about that." Then he coughed and interjected: "Personal fouls.")

One detail I'm not certain of is where the umpire and referee will be assigned to look during most plays. They won't just scan the backfield for infractions, so it's not clear if there will be more eyes on the quarterback. But McCarthy believes the umpire's new proximity couldn't hurt.

"I think it definitely would have helped [against Arizona]," McCarthy said. "Our quarterback, I think, definitely could be protected more than he was last year [by officials]. There were a number of times that he was hit and penalties weren't called and fines probably followed."

Let's all agree to monitor this development when the season begins in a mere six months. All right! We have our first weekly feature of 2010!