Adrian Peterson takes a hand off from Teddy Bridgewater and darts left aiming for the C gap between the left tackle and the tight end. As he approaches the hole, the tackle on the right side of the line grabs the Seahawks' defensive end by the jersey and slows his ability to give chase. Peterson hits the hole and gets 4 yards before he's dragged down.
The Seahawks coaching staff and fans all scream in unison, "Holding! Holding!" They saw the jersey pull and want their 10 yards.
The umpire saw it, too, as did the line judge, and they both kept their flags in their pants. No foul. Why? A hold on the opposite side of where the play went had zero affect on the outcome of the play.
That's officiating philosophy at work. And it's the subject of a rarely discussed document currently being reviewed at the highest level by the NFL and its officials. That document seeks to clarify rules and provide a consistent philosophy for all of the NFL's officiating crews.
Every football coach has his own philosophy. They all have to play by the same rules, and they all win games by outscoring their opponents. Yet, each one has to figure out for himself how to get there, what best allows himself to be himself and fairly achieve his team's goals.
The same is true for officials. While the rulebook is typed out in black and white as plain as day, the implementation of those rules takes more than an eighth-grade reading level. It requires an understanding of the purposes of the rules and the philosophies behind them.
"Officiating is not like those stripes," said Terry Wilson, a former flank official (line judge/linesman) in the Western Athletic Conference. "It's not black and white. It's very gray sometimes."
What is officiating philosophy?
Officiating philosophy is a way to manage that gray area. Understanding philosophy is just as important to good officiating as is understanding the rules. Sometimes, like with the hold on the right side of the line on a run to the left, philosophy trumps the "black and white" of the rules. In an officiating profession designed to ensure an equitable and safe playing environment, philosophy is justifiably paramount.
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Philosophy is the lens through which rules are understood and applied during games. If the rulebook is the Bible, the philosophy is the particular congregation or church that interprets it.
From a document created by USA Football, "according to a National Association of Sports Officials report, officiating philosophy is described as who we are and how we handle game situations." It is a component to officiating that is just as important as understanding the rules and the mechanics of the game.
If officials threw a flag on every single infraction they witnessed, an NFL game would go over four hours and the game would get bogged down for players and fans. Philosophy helps manage the game beyond the rules, determining how and when to apply the rules and what the rulebook means in game-speed situations.
Books have been written about officiating philosophy. While there isn't one particular "right" answer to creating a philosophy, it is mandatory that every successful official develop a philosophy of his own (that philosophy often answers to the person assigning him games).
One official may be more strictly "by the rule book," while others may be more lenient. Philosophy on a particular rule can change from official to official, league to league or organization to organization. It can even shift over the course of a season.
One philosophy isn't necessarily wrong, though there are many philosophies (like "advantage gained," which I'll talk about below) that seem to be adopted widely and that are important to the NFL for officials to understand.
The NFL's unofficial officials-philosophy handbook
For the last 10 years NFL officials have used an unofficial philosophy-guidelines document created by Tony Corrente, an NFL referee since 1995, as a supplement to the rulebook. That document helps clarify rules and provide a road map for officials to build consistency across the officiating crews.
There was a time before the existence of this document when rules were interpreted with wider discrepancy from official-to-official, crew-to-crew. There may be nothing more frustrating to players and coaches than having to guess how a rule will be called on the field during a particular game. This document, until now unofficial and not shared publicly, has helped smooth that out.
According to NFL vice-president of officiating Dean Blandino, the League is now in the process of reviewing that document with the Competition Committee and making it official.
"We are capturing all of that and putting it together so we can share it with the clubs," Blandino said. "We need the clubs and players to all understand that philosophy."
This isn't to say teams and players and coaches haven't been aware of the role of philosophy in officiating for years. Whether this document has been distributed to them or not, its contents are routinely explained before the season, particularly for new rules.
"The NFL officials go to practices and meetings, and in those meetings they ask questions to make sure everyone is on the same page, how we're going to call it," said former NFL umpire Chad Brown, who officiated the Super Bowl in 2001 and 2011. "Then you go out to the practice field and work with the coaches and players and help them understand how we're going to call it."
While the existence of this rarely discussed document might surprise some people, it's essential to the actual officiating of an NFL game. Without one singular umbrella set of philosophies for the league, inconsistencies will develop. It's why the on-field implementation of rules by college football officiating crews can vary widely. These crews are hired by conferences, and each conference supervisor has his own set of philosophies and interpretations he wants to see executed on the field.
"It confuses coaches," Wilson said. "Let's say a PAC-12 crew works an ACC game, and their officials have told them we're going to call something this way, but the PAC-12 has a different philosophy. It doesn't help the coaches because they're not sure what to tell their players. In the NFL all the officials work for one boss, so all games are officiated the same way."
These inconsistencies across crews are getting better as more big-time conferences are hiring from the same pool -- current and former NFL officials -- to run their football officiating systems: Walt Anderson is the head of officials for the Big XII, Bill Carollo runs the show in the Big Ten and Gerald Austin runs the Conference USA officials. The Pac-12 last year hired David Coleman, who was the NFL's head of officials through the 2014 season. By hiring people with the common tie of the NFL, the major conferences have opened lines of communication between the heads of officials and bought into a more singular officiating philosophy system.
One of the lone holdouts is the SEC, whose officiating not surprisingly looks a bit ... different from the rest.
In the NFL you've got one person through which all the philosophies and interpretations run: Dean Blandino.
"I think Dean puts the right philosophies in place," said Chad Brown. "He articulates his ideas well and does a good job of helping everyone understand it. He has a way of simplifying the rules for people."
Even with the NFL's efforts to create one set of philosophies, human nature will always be part of officiating. One official may have a rule that is particularly important to her, and she may call it more strictly while another official lays off the flag a bit more. Nothing will ever change the human-nature element of slight differences in officiating "style."
This makes Blandino's latest move -- taking firmer control of the previously unofficial philosophy document -- even more important, ensuring it is one set of philosophies being implemented on the field, everyone understands it and the person in charge of assigning games has control of it.
Two key officiating philosophies to understand
There are two key officiating philosophies from which so many others stem.
The first involves "advantage gained." That essentially means that for a flag to be thrown, there has to be a material advantage gained by the team breaking a rule. If there is no real advantage gained that impacts the outcome of the play, don't call it.
I started this piece with an example involving a run by Adrian Peterson: He runs left, the tackle on the right holds, no call. This is the most basic implementation of that rule. The defensive end coming around the opposite corner of the offensive line would have had no practical impact on limiting a simple 4-yard gain by the runner. If the hold had been by the left tackle at the "point of attack" by the runner, that should be called every time. On the opposite side of the line? Almost never.
The flip side of that reasoning is the assigning of advantage. If the flank official had thrown his flag for that infraction, he would be penalizing the offense 10 yards for doing something that had no material impact on the play. He would, in essence, be "inserting" himself into the game and giving the defense an advantage in that play.
To be sure, there is judgment in all of that. That judgment is why the NFL officials are where they are: They have the ability to assess advantage/disadvantage in a fraction of a second, while all the while observing the play, understanding the rules and executing the mechanics to keep the game flowing. Pretty incredible.
Pass interference is another important call to understand in this regard. If the ball is in the air to the left sideline and the wide receiver on the right side of the formation is held as the ball comes down, an official should never call that foul (this does not include defensive holding before the ball is thrown). When the pass is to the other side of the field, that DPI had no impact on the offense's ability to catch the ball.
Same thing on a kickoff that sails into the end zone. A good official would never call a holding penalty in that circumstance because, regardless of whether there is a hold, the ball is being put out of play. A hold on a punt that bounces at the 5-yard line and rolls into the end zone is different: The kicking team could make a play on the ball to down it. But a kickoff that sails into the end zone? While a hold may be technically illegal by rule, an official would never call that.
That's the "advantage gained" philosophy.
While I certainly haven't spoken to the covering official (in this case the back judge) on the play, a much-discussed non-call in the Packers-Cardinals Divisional Round game could have been the result of this philosophy.
On the play, Cardinals receiver Jaron Brown engaged Packers cornerback Casey Hayward off the line and drove him into the defensive backfield.
An official could have called offensive pass interference (and NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth demanded as much).
Yet, the potential foul didn't free up the intended receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, or the ultimate receiver of the touchdown, Michael Floyd. And the action by Brown actually pushed the defender in the direction of the deflected pass.
To be sure, an official could have called OPI here, but there was no advantage gained by Brown's action. Ultimately no flag was thrown.
What will an official do instead of using his flag? He'll talk to the players and coaches, let them know that what they did was illegal or questionable. There were plenty of times Terry Wilson had to deal with coaches in the restricted area on the sideline, or a player lined up technically in a position that made the offense's formation illegal. They often didn't get a flag.
"We tried to get it corrected in the first quarter without penalizing them, before it's a problem," Wilson said. "If a [fifth] player is slightly behind the snapper, you want to just talk to the player and talk to the coach. And if they don't correct it, then you need to call that because you don't want to call it in the fourth quarter on a game-winning play when he's been lining up that way all game."
Sometimes it's better to talk with your mouth than with your flag. That's another philosophy.
With all of that being said, overarching philosophy No. 2 can trump any of this at any moment: Safety first.
"Normally with dead ball fouls you're thinking about safety," Wilson said. "You want to make sure you get that call. It's a late hit out of bounds or a player piles on. A player blows a guy up when he's not looking. You have to call those fouls even if it's away from the play. If you miss that kind of stuff, it will come back to bite you because a player will administer his own justice when he sees fit."
Brown said that in his 20-plus years officiating in the NFL, he often saw other philosophies shift over the course of the season. There's a philosophy that says only call the things that are big enough for the guy in the last row to see. "Make it big." People want to see the players play, they want to see the action on the field determine the game. As the season inches toward the playoffs, and certainly in the postseason, it's understandable that officials may loosen up their calls a bit, "letting the players play" and focusing only on the fouls that the person in their living room recliner can see.
While I can't speak for the deep flank official on the play, the no-call for the action between Jimmy Smith and Michael Crabtree near the end of Super Bowl XLVII was likely influenced by this philosophy.
Yet, on the issue of safety fouls, Brown said there has been no wavering over the course of the season in recent years.
"The head stuff has become a touchy situation," he said. "They are consistent with that, from the spring season, clinics, all the way to the Super Bowl. Your holding and DPI philosophies can change over the course of the season, but the head stuff they want called consistently. Anything dealing with that head, they want you to go with a foul if it even comes close."
Another key component to philosophy is the "err on the side of" list. Football is a fast game being played faster by strong, fast men every season. While it may not seem like it to those who have never tried to officiate a football game, the NFL officials do a heroic job of getting calls right in real time. Yet, there are so many plays that are so close, it may be, in real time, a "tie."
The "err on the side of" or "when in doubt" list helps with that. (Of course, the NFL doesn't like either of those terms, but ultimately there isn't a great term for what to do when it's "too close to call").
For example, regarding DPI, if the defender gets there "nearly at the same time," it's not a foul. This is what people call "bang-bang." Unless the defender clearly hit the receiver early and affected the play, don't call it.
Malcolm Butler's interception in Super Bowl XLIX is a prime example.
Replay shows Butler clearly hit receiver Ricardo Lockette a split second before either player touched the ball. Because of the philosophy -- and in particular late in the Super Bowl -- it's a no-call. Let the players play. Bang-bang.
Philosophy is why instant replay should not be used for judgment calls
If coaches and replay officials were allowed to challenge judgment calls, NFL games would go on forever. The old adage that "there's holding on every play" isn't far from the truth, according to Brown. However, because of philosophy, it doesn't get called: There's no advantage-disadvantage.
Opening these calls up to review would be like giving coaches a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you look hard enough, you're going to see holding all over the offensive line during games. Most of the time it shouldn't be called and isn't called.
Consider that Butler play in the Super Bowl. If Pete Carroll were allowed to challenge that call, because Butler got there a hundredth of a second early in an incredible bang-bang play with 22 seconds left in the biggest game of the year, Carroll and the Seahawks could have played their get-out-of-jail-free card (yes, I know reviews in the last two minutes are only ordered by the booth -- and in that case, the booth would have likely had to order a review).
No matter how many coaches say they want to be able to challenge judgment calls, there's no way that will happen because of the importance of philosophy's role in the game. Virtually every penalty flag thrown involves some kind of philosophy, and if the NFL begins to allow coaches to challenge penalty flags that are not essentially black and white (like having 12 men on the field to start a play), they open a can of worms.
While the philosophies are designed to make the game more equitable and easier to officiate, the lack of understanding of these philosophies has led fans to become frustrated why "their team" didn't get a "clear call." Coaches are also able to utilize that -- e.g., Jim Harbaugh screaming about the end-of-Super-Bowl non-holding call -- when his team doesn't get the benefit of the doubt.
"Officials are always going to be the villains because people aren't going to make the effort to understand what the rules are," Brown said. "The language they use and how to interpret the rules is like reading a law book. If you can't put the philosophy with the rule, it's going to be very difficult to officiate."
Cyd Zeigler is a high school and college football official in Los Angeles. He is also the co-founder of SBNation's Outsports.com.