ON FOOTBALL: A year later, real officials on the field, job just as difficult

Dean Blandino blanches, then smiles when an ugly word in pro football is mentioned.


"Let's move on," he says.

The NFL has labor peace on all fronts as the 2013 season begins, and the memories of three weeks of replacement officials can't fade quickly enough for league execs like Blandino, the vice president of officiating. The job for referees and umpires is difficult enough when you have spent years on the job at the highest level.

This season, there are extra challenges for the guys with whistles, just as there are for the guys making plays on the field.

Start with the pace of play, which figures to be quicker everywhere, not just in Philadelphia, where Chip Kelly has brought the Quack Attack across country from Oregon.

"Our guys might not be used to seeing it," Blandino says. "Maybe they saw it when they were (working) in college, but not much here. So they have been watching lots of tape and the four preseason games have been very helpful to the game officials. We used to have NFL Europe as a proving ground, but now it's repetitions and video, and the more snaps you see, the better off you are."

The no-huddle has become such a staple of NFL offenses that officials sometimes must feel like they are at a track meet. The onus is on them to spot the ball and get in position while a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Michael Vick is at the line, eager to have the ball snapped.

Blandino says there will be a heavy concentration on making sure everything is fair for both offense and defense before a play begins.

"We have re-emphasized the mechanics for us with the no-huddle and the quick offenses," he says. "They can't snap the ball before everyone has a chance to be in position. I guess it becomes a matter of how fast is too fast."

The Eagles, in particular, are concerned about that. Or, more accurately, how much slower their fast offense needs to be to conform to the rules.

"We understand the rules of engagement," Kelly says. "Dean Blandino and those guys in the league office, (we) met with them at the league meetings. They were here when we were in minicamp. I have no issue with them. We actually embraced the way they do it. Really similar to what we have in college.

"Tony Corrente, who's a longtime official in this league, was actually the head of the Pac-12 officials. We're used to the style that they run. I see absolutely no problem with it."

Another potential problem area — a Pandora's Box, really — is the defenseless player call. There currently are 10 situations in which a player is considered defenseless, from quarterbacks in the pocket to receivers in the air to kickers and kick returners.

With the league's crackdown on hits to the head and neck, more hits are coming around the knees. Two of those hits sidelined Miami tight end Dustin Keller and Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams during the preseason. Unfortunately, Keller's knee was wrecked so badly it's questionable if he can recover in time for the 2014 season. Williams was far luckier and is hopeful of being back very soon.

"The low hit has always been allowed on the ball carrier," Blandino says. "The Keller hit (by Houston rookie safety D.J. Swearinger) we have seen before. With the weight difference between a tight end and a defensive back, he has to be able to go low and make that hit. Unfortunately, there was an injury to Dustin and that is not what we want to see.

"We will monitor it to see if that (has become a) targeted area. It would be difficult officiating that as a defenseless player (call), because you keep shrinking the legal strike zone."

One play made easier to judge is the tuck rule. It's been safely tucked away and no longer exists. Any loss of control after a passer starts to tuck the ball back toward his body now will be a fumble. The forward passing motion ends once a passer begins a tuck.

Perhaps adding an eighth official to each of the 17 officiating teams would help with those and other calls, and the NFL has looked into adding a second back judge for several years. It could provide better coverage for them downfield, but, for now, the idea has been tabled. The competition committee will continue to evaluate it, however, but Blandino also wonders if there would be 17 more officials who are ready to make the leap from the top of college football to the NFL.

Of course, there always are those replacements. ...


AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this story.


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