Walt Anderson, NFL referee and Big 12 Coordinator of Officials, provided his annual breakdown of rule changes on Tuesday, and they’re refreshingly solid and simplistic. First, some of the more basic rules, or, really, tidying aspects is the outlawing of the face masks Anderson compared to “cage fighting arenas.” Those oversized, griddled garbs are now illegal.
“Those oversized face masks have been eliminated,” Anderson said. “We communicated with the equipment managers throughout the spring, and we feel like we probably got that under control even before the season starts. Some of them have sent us photographs of their anticipated face mask, and we've already approved and/or disapproved some of them. So we've got some good communication there.”
The second aspect is the addition of an eighth official to all 10 FBS conferences. That obviously won’t change anything in the Big 12, which originated the eighth official. It will provide another set of eyes on the field, as well as make it far easier to spot fouls along the lines, where some of the play was least scrutinized because of the seven officials being strained horizontally and vertically by spread offenses. That will also aid in the ability to officiate the allotted three yards downfield for linemen on passing plays when the ball is released. If linemen are beyond that area when the pass is released, a foul will, as it was last year, be called.
“It's something that obviously we developed and pioneered three years ago on an experimental basis to see how that worked,” Anderson said of the eight-man crew. “It's been very well received not only by us and our coaches and staff, but during that experimental period, the rest of the country began trying it. And it's something that – with the changes in the game – it was something that was seen as necessary.”
The NCAA also brought back the sideline warnings for coaches. A coach is first warned about straying outside of the proper areas, then assessed a five-yard penalty for a second or third offense. Any offense four and greater is a 15-yard penalty. The most significant change is a review concerning an onside kick. The rules state that a first touching of a player on the receiving team cannot occur by an opponent before the ball passes the 10-yard mark, after which it can be recovered. Dubbed the “rule of first contact,” it was a difficult – and before unreviewable – play to judge because of the speed of the play and the cluster of bodies around the ball. Now, the first touch by a player on the kicking team of a player on the receiving team is able to be reviewed, along with considerations as to whether the ball made legal contact with a player within the 10-yard area.
Anderson said this change was discussed and ultimately accepted because, like in many instances, several officials had this occur and, upon later review of game tape, noted that some calls were missed.
“It often occurs at the end of the game,” Anderson said while showing film of the play. “Obviously, the team that's kicking, which is this team here, they're behind. So they're going to try and onside kick. Let So we got a roller up the middle. Boom, there's a lot of contact. And the offensive team ends up recovering the football. Now, it has always been reviewable since we've had instant replay, where is the ball touched. That's always been a reviewable aspect. The ball is touched right here at 10 yards.
“The difficulty comes in is when you see right here there's a block. Number 37 of the receiving team is stepping up here trying to come up and recover this kick, and No. 22 of the kicking team blocks him. The key is he blocks him before the kicking team is eligible to touch the ball, which is a foul. The problem from an officiating standpoint, there's a lot of bodies in here. The officials who have to make this call are also looking for the point of first touching. It happens very, very fast. So the rules committee felt like that's something we wanted to end up taking a look at. So what instant replay this year would do, they would stop this play. And what they would end up looking at -- and they will make this judgement call in replay -- is they'll determine is this player (illegally) blocking this player.”
If so, the penalty would be an illegal block during the free kick, which would result in a five-yard penalty and a re-kick, if the receiving team did not recover and chose to accept the penalty. If the receiving team recovers the ball, they would obviously decline the foul and take the result of the play. If the receiving team player touches the ball first, within the 10-yard area, then the block by the kicking team player, if it came after the touch, would be legal.
The other change of note is on a tipped ball, on a punt or pass. Prior to this season, officials could not review a roughing the kicker, or pass interference call, with respect to whether the ball was tipped prior to the contact. The option to review that segment of the play is now in place. The official review cannot, however, change the judgement call of running into or roughing the kicker, only whether the initial penalty will stand or not.
Anderson also spoke about targeting, noting that the rule changes to last season which allowed the review of targeting, along with the ability to reverse a player ejection, or even the initial penalty, worked well. He said that, last season, the Big 12 had eight total targeting calls, four of which were overturned. Those numbers were mimicked across college football, with the number of targeting calls going down nationally as players begin to change styles and tackling approaches to remain within the newer rules.
“Over the last several years, obviously, as all of you are aware, targeting has been a major focus and point of emphasis,” Anderon said. “Initially, a couple of years ago, when instant replay first got involved as being able to look at it, it carried a little bit more controversy. Most all of us feel like last year went very well, partly because of the rule change that was made last year that allowed instant replay to not only remove the disqualifying part of the penalty, but, in fact, if there was not targeting, that the entire penalty could be removed. That was very well received. It seemed in general to work very well. But targeting will continue to be a point of emphasis.
“The good news is it appears to be accomplishing exactly what it was intended to do, and that's changing the behavior of players, getting players adjusting to the rule, changing their technique, getting their heads to the side to where they're not using that as a weapon, lowering their strike zone to where you can see in countless videos that they're making concerted efforts and they're being coached to make concerted efforts to avoid contact to the head and neck area. We're still going to have some targeting, but it was evident to us last year, whether it was in the stadium with fans, with members, when it ended up getting called, especially when it was there and correctly called, it wasn't a surprise as to what was about to happen. Even in the stadiums, we'd often hear, even with the offended team fans, the big sigh in terms of uh-oh, he's gone. Here it comes. People are getting used to it, and that's a good thing, but it will continue to be a point of emphasis.”
Anderson also noted that there were considerations to do away with the clock stoppages after frst downs in order to speed the game up and reduce number of plays, though that ultimately didn’t pass. Anderson said the Big 12 averaged 187 plays per game, second behind the Pac-12’s 192. The national average is 182, with the SEC, always chartering about more slow play, actually one snap over the national average at 183 plays per game. Anderson said because there’s only so fast teams can go, and that defenses have adapted, the number of plays appears to be on a bit of a decline, and so the extreme of fast play might have been reached, and begun its recession.
“We're not ever going to be an organization that is satisfied with our status quo,” Anderson said in summation. “We may be very pleased with where we are, but we're also going to, just like the teams are expected to, be always working, getting better. And part of that effort this year was -- we created what we call a football working group, which was comprised of coaches and athletic directors as well as Ed Stewart and I from the Conference office. Commissioner (Bob) Bowlsby did participate in that process as well. And our real focus was really just how can we improve officiating and, at the same time, how can we improve the communication between officiating and coaching so that it will help coaches be better and they can end up helping players be better.
“We came to several conclusions, and we came up with several initiatives, not the least of which was one of the things that the coaches want to have the availability to do is to have more access not only to me in comments, which is ongoing and always has been very open, but at the same time, for them to have access to more information about plays and calls and rules, what's correct, what's incorrect. Officiating should not be more a part of the game than what is absolutely necessary. That should be reserved for coaches, players, strategies, et cetera, but there are times when officiating does have to interject, if you will, to make sure that the game is played fairly.”
Anderson's full comments are available via this link to the official Big 12 website.