June 29, 2011

New rules put top official on the spot

Rogers Redding isn't dreading the first time he has to explain why one of his officials took points off the scoreboard this season.

That said, when Redding - the new national coordinator of officials - has to answer for the first touchdown called back because of a taunting penalty, the response will be much easier if the official's decision is plain for everyone to see.

From the rulebook
What is unsportsmanlike conduct? Here's what the 2011 rulebook says:
"No player, substitute, coach or other person subject to the rules shall use abusive, threatening or obscene language or gestures, or engage in such acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials or to the image of the game, including but not limited to:
(a) Pointing the finger(s), hand(s), arm(s) or ball at an opponent, or imitating the slashing of the throat.
(b) Taunting, baiting or ridiculing an opponent verbally.
(c) Inciting an opponent or spectators in any other way, such as simulating the firing of a weapon or placing a hand by the ear to request recognition.
(d) Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself (or themselves).
(e) An unopposed ball carrier obviously altering stride as he approaches the opponent's goal line or diving into the end zone.
(f) Removal of a player's helmet before he is in the team area
(Exceptions: Team, media or injury timeouts; equipment adjustment; through play; between periods; and during a measurement for a first down).
(g) Punching one's own chest or crossing one's arms in front of the chest while standing over a prone player.
(h) Going into the stands to interact with spectators, or bowing at the waist after a good play."
Starting this season, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty could erase a touchdown in certain circumstances. The NCAA approved the rule before last season, and it turns an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty into a live-ball foul instead of a dead-ball foul.

If, for example, a player high steps, taunts or otherwise showboats on his way to the end zone, the penalty will erase the touchdown. The 15-yard penalty will be assessed at the spot of the foul. Previously, such penalties were enforced on the ensuing kickoff.

"That's my hope, that's my dream, that it will be so obvious to the entire world," Redding says. "There will be people who disagree with it. If there are 50 guys in a bar, if 45 say it's a great call, I'll be happy.

"Don't hold me to that number, though."

Redding doesn't have a prediction on how many touchdowns will be called back or when it will happen for the first time or even if it will happen this season. Still, as the secretary-rules editor of the Playing Rules Oversight Committee, Redding says if it does happen, he just hopes the official doesn't become the story.

"It's really up to the players," Redding says. "If they do what they're supposed to do, we won't have a problem. If they make the choice they should make and that the coaches want to make, there won't be an issue. But there will be somebody. They're teenagers, for goodness sake."

But officials are human, too, and make mistakes. When Redding was the SEC's coordinator of officials in 2009, he determined that the on-field official made the wrong call when he flagged Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green for unsportsmanlike conduct after a late touchdown against LSU. Green's touchdown catch gave the Bulldogs a 13-12 lead with 1:09 left, but because of the penalty, Georgia kicked off from its 15. LSU capitalized on the good field position with the game-winning touchdown two plays later.

The incorrect call didn't cost Georgia the touchdown - and wouldn't under the new rule - but it illustrates the subjective nature of unsportsmanlike conduct calls. One official may judge a celebration as a spontaneous response to a great play. Another may see it as showboating and excessive.

As the national coordinator of officials, Redding aims to create more consistent officiating nationwide on every call, not just high-profile unsportsmanlike conduct calls. The post was established in 2008 and was held by Dave Parry, a former Big Ten head of football officiating, until February. Parry, 76, died on March 14 of complications from Parkinson's disease.

Redding's office distributes training videos to every official in the country of correct and incorrect calls and officiating mechanics. Training videos also are available during the season, recapping more recent games.

Kick out kickoffs?
If Rutgers coach Greg Schiano were in charge, he'd do away with kickoffs.

In an interview with the Newark (N.J.) Star Ledger earlier this month, Schiano proposed replacing the kickoff with a fourth-and-15 situation from a team's own 30. The kicking team would have the option to punt or try for the first down. He also tested his plan at the Big East meetings and with fellow coaches.

Georgia coach Mark Richt echoed Schiano's sentiments that kickoffs are too unsafe to remain part of the game.

Eliminating of the kickoff all together would be "a major paradigm shift," says Rogers Redding, the new national coordinator of officials, but he expects the playing rules committee to at least investigate ways to make kickoffs safer.

"It is an intriguing idea," Redding says. "I have no doubt the rules committee will take a look at it because there's enough interest in it. ... I'll be surprised if the committee doesn't at least discuss the possibility of doing something with the kickoff."

Last season, Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand suffered a spinal cord injury on a kickoff return that left him paralyzed from the neck down. In 2003, Georgia cornerback Decory Bryant suffered a career-ending broken neck on a kickoff return.

The NFL this season plans to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 and to eliminate the two-man wedge block. College kickoffs come from the 30, and the NCAA banned wedge blocks before last season.

The NCAA has tinkered with kickoffs for decades, balancing player safety and keeping an exciting play in the game. Kickoffs in college once were from the 40, then from the 35. The NFL says injuries, specifically head and neck injuries, occur more disproportionately on kickoffs than any other play.

Redding says the NCAA has not investigated injury numbers in college football. In part, that's because collecting any data in college football - with 120 teams in Division I FBS alone, compared to 32 in the NFL - is problematic, he says.

"There's no question the kickoff is a dangerous play," Redding says. "As you can see, you've got these two armies going at full speed crashing into each other.

"It's an exciting play. Football is a collision sport. Part of its charm and grandeur is the thing that makes it dangerous. It would be a major change."
The goal of Redding's office is to distribute the same training materials among officials working for each conference. In three years since the College Football Officiating, LLC, was established, officials have made the most gains in applying rules for player safety. The area where officials need to find more consistency, Redding says, is in calling unsportsmanlike conduct fouls. Now that officials can erase touchdowns, Redding expects the scrutiny of such calls to ramp up.

If there's a lesson to be learned, it comes from the improved officiating regarding player safety. Officials don't have to go hunting for egregious violations in player safety. The call "almost reaches up and slaps you in the face," says Redding, an on-field official from 1988-2005 who owns a doctorate in physical chemistry from Vanderbilt.

When an official takes away a touchdown, Redding hopes the official takes the same approach.

"Make them almost the pull the flag out of your pocket for you," Redding says. "Make it so obvious that it just slaps you upside the head and you don't have to think about it."

That's what Redding means by winning over fans in the sports bar. The new rule could claim a touchdown every week of the season. Then again, the whole season could pass without a single point coming off the scoreboard.

If it does happen, officials will have far fewer headaches if there aren't any arguments coming from the stands, sidelines or press box.

"It could have a huge impact on the game," Redding says. "It also might have no impact at all if the players adjust. We'll have to see how it goes."

Other rule changes for the 2011 season include:

A wide receiver more than seven yards from the center may only block below the waist against a player facing him or toward the nearest sideline. The same rule applies for running backs and receivers in the backfield and outside the tackle box. The change means blocking below the waist more than seven yards away from the center is illegal in most cases.

On field goals and extra points, officials will call a penalty when three defensive players line up shoulder to shoulder in an attempt to penetrate the line of scrimmage to block a kick. Coaches voiced player safety concerns when one offensive lineman is overpowered by three defensive players on field-goal and PAT attempts.

In more tweaking of clock rules, 10 seconds could be run off the game clock if a team commits a penalty in the final minute of each half. If officials call a penalty, the opponent has the option to accept the penalty and the 10-second rundown, accept the penalty without the 10-second rundown, or to decline both the 10-second rundown and the penalty.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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