NFL officials are spending training camp going from team to team to educate players about a handful of important rule changes.
They will also be learning themselves during the preseason.
First year referee Shawn Smith (4th season in the NFL) was in charge of the group of the officials that visited Fisher on Wednesday and Thursday.
The reception from Bills players was congenial, according to Smith. Many of the questions were about the league’s new targeting and use of helmet rules.
“They just wanted to understand the interpretation of how the new rule is. What they can and can’t do,” Smith. “We explained that there’s three elements: You can’t lower your head, initiate contact and make contact.”
Do all three and it’s a penalty. That goes for anywhere on the field, including offensive linemen getting off the ball at the snap and even quarterbacks. A QB that goes head first and initiates contact on a sneak could get called for a 15 yard penalty.
“You could potentially have a play where you have a defender and a runner do the same thing and you could have two (offsetting) fouls,” Smith said.
This fould can also warrant an ejection. That part of the rule will be overseen from a league review center in New York City. Players can be ejected even if the on field crew did not feel an ejection was warranted. On field ejections can also be overturned.
The targeting rules seemingly have NFL players on edge. Reportedly, draft holdouts have been due, in part, to preparing for the possible effects of the new rule.
Smith admits even the officials will need some practice with it.
“It’s an adjustment for us. It’s an adjustment for the players. We really can’t tell you how difficult it will be until we get some live snaps where we see this in action,” Smith said. “We’ve watched a lot of videos… to prepare us for it, but not until we get into some of these preseason games and we start to see it will we be able to determine how difficult it is for us to call it.”
Players can put their head down if they are protecting themselves, but Smith says the rule of thumb is simple. “Just keep your head up. That’s the intent of the rule. That’s the spirit for player safety.”
Smith also discussed the new catch rule with reporters. Instead of surviving the ground, receivers now only need to have control of the ball, two feet (or another body part) down and make a football move.
While he didn’t think the changes make the catch rule simpler, Smith did expect different results for questionable catches.
“You close one door, you open another,” Smith said. “Now, there may be the potential for more fumbles versus last year, when we had incomplete passes.”
There won’t need to be an adjustment for officials to resist blowing the whistle on more possible catch-fumbles this season. Those officials are trained to go slower on plays already.
“If you go fast, you’re susceptible to an error,” Smith said. “We allow other officials to intervene.”
The Kelvin Benjamin play from last year brought up another, more subtle change to the catch rule.
The “control” part of the catch has been loosened up. In New England last year, Benjamin was bobbling the ball a bit as he gathered it in, which led to the controversial decision to overturn the catch.
This year, if a player is bobbling while gathering the ball in, that can still count as control. For example, a player reaching out with one hand to pull a catch in can be ruled as having “control” the moment the ball hits his single hand.
“Some of the players are bigger than others,” Smith said. “They may be able to control the ball with one hand.”
It’s just one of the many changes players and referees will be learning about this preseason.