Zebra Report: Umpires in the Backfield
According to ESPN, the move will be put into effect for next season. It appears to be 100 percent safety-related, as there were more than 100 instances of an umpire being knocked down in 2009. Also, according to Mike Pereira (outgoing Vice President of Officiating), two umpires suffered concussions and three needed to have surgeries to repair injuries.
For those who aren't sure about the specifics of the position, the umpire is the officiating spot responsible for spotting the football and watching the offensive line activity. He had been, for nearly all of history, positioned almost like a middle linebacker. Obviously, this is a dangerous area on the field for a man to be standing without any pads. I've seen umpires in their 20s and in great shape get knocked over by a blindside shot at the high-school level, so you can imagine how ill-equipped guys in their 50s are to avoid contact at the lightning-fast NFL-level. In fact, I'd go as far as to say we're lucky not to have witnessed an umpire suffer a life-threatening head injury (think about it, if a player accidentally runs into the umpire at full speed and the helmet hits the umpire's head, that's potentially a life-ender).
In light of this, I do believe the move to the offensive side of the football gets the umpire mostly out of harm's way and it's definitely a good move. There's no reason to risk the well-being of an official in order to more accurately call holding or an ineligible receiver downfield. With that being said, I do believe there will be a hole in the coverage of the line of scrimmage now.
During a running play, the umpire's ability to see holding will likely be significantly affected. In fact, the referee and umpire both watching the offensive line on a running play from their past positions provided two great angles -- and they should have seen any hold. Now, with both behind the offensive line, things get trickier. On a run play, the offensive line storms off the line of scrimmage and attempts to drive the defenders down field. A lot of times the defender is prevented from moving laterally by an offensive lineman wrapping one arm around the side of the defender and to the back area.
An umpire in the old position could easily see when an arm was wrapped around the defender, preventing lateral movement. From the position behind the offense, though, he may simply see the back of the offensive lineman and not see the arm wrap. Will the NFL ask the linesmen and the back judge to watch for this? If so, coverage in other areas of the field will slightly suffer.
During a passing play, the umpire's ability to see holding should not be lessened. Since all the action is coming back toward the quarterback as the lineman drop, any grabbing or clutching by the lineman will be easily seen in front of the umpire. In this case, though, it doesn't seem like they will have near as much coverage for a possible ineligible receiver downfield, illegal forward pass, or in judgment of when a pass crosses the line of scrimmage (which is important in the case of several penalties, such as pass interference and intentional grounding).
In the past the umpire was responsible for getting to the line of scrimmage on a passing play. From there, if a lineman, passer or the ball crossed him, he would know exactly what call should be made. The line judge also sticks with the line of scrimmage, so there were always two sets of eyes monitoring for these possible infractions. Now, with the move behind the offensive line, the umpire won't be able to navigate his way to the line on passing plays. That means it's all going to fall on the shoulders of the line judge, who also has several other responsibilities. It feels like this is a recipe to a few missed calls in this situation.
To sum it up, I believe this move creates a hole in holding calls on running plays and in plays involving the line of scrimmage on passing plays. This is, of course, before the NFL has released the new official's manual, which will detail the responsibilities of each official.
Maybe the NFL can make more things reviewable as a reaction to this. I'm sure they'll also tweak the responsibilities of each official to help thwart any possible holes in vision from the crew, and I'm sure they will have thought the move through before making it official.
To reiterate, though, the cost of missing a handful of holding and other calls over the course of the NFL season pales in comparison to the physical well-being of the umpires themselves. Let's keep that in mind as we watch football in the years to follow. A human life is much more important than an illegal forward pass.