2017 mechanics change gave umpire responsibility for left tackle
In the pool report generated after Monday’s Lions-Packers game, referee Clete Blakeman said that the controvesial illegal hands to the face fouls imposed against the Lions were called by umpire Jeff Rice. That admission caught the attention of some league insiders.
Prior to 2017, the referee had jurisdiction over the left tackle and whoever he is blocking. The referee would watch the left tackle and his opponent until the pocket collapses, before turning his attention to the quarterback.
The flaw in that approach was obvious: Once the referee turned his attention to the quarterback, the left tackle and his opponent were essentially left to their own devices, since the umpire watched the center and the guards and the line judge (or head linesman) watched the right tackle. This resulted in plenty of fouls that were missed because no one was watching the left tackle and the man blocking him after the pocket collapsed.
In 2017, after Dean Blandino left the NFL and Al Riveron assumed responsibility for the officiating function, the referee became responsible for the right tackle and the right guard, with the umpire responsibe for the left tackle, left guard, and center. (The referee watches the center if he moves to the right side after the snap.) This ensures that someone will be watching the left tackle and his opponent through the release of the ball. (It nevertheless creates a potential flaw when it comes to the right tackle and right guard after the pocket collapses and the referee shifts his attention to the quarterback.)
It means little for what transpired last night; if, however, the mechanics hadn’t changed in 2017, the referee may not have been looking at Lions defensive end Trey Flowers when he was (or wasn’t) putting his hands in tackle David Bakhtiari’s face. But the players blocking and rushing from the right side are now more likely to get away with some over-the-line techniques after the pocket collapses.
This underscores the potential value of an eighth official, who could monitor the referee’s half of the line continuously after the referee turns his eyes to the quarterback.
Again, none of this should mattered on Monday night, because the umpire got it wrong, twice. When watching games moving forward (and when mistakes happen), remember that it’s the umpire who’s watching the everyone to the left of the snap, and that the referee is watching everyone to the right.