Official eye discipline

Eye Discipline: Train Yourself to Look in the Correct Area

What is Rubbernecking?

If you’ve traveled long distances by car or lived in or near a city, you have undoubtedly experienced the frustration of getting stuck in a traffic jam; inching along, mile after exasperating mile, with no escape in sight.

Irritation then turns to outrage when we discover the cause of the congestion is located in the opposite lane. There was no physical obstruction on your side of the road; the gridlock existed because drivers ahead were slowing down to rubberneck. And it’s interesting to note, despite our sanctimonious judgment of other drivers, we also craned our necks to stare.

The desire to rubberneck, gawk, stare, and gape is often an involuntary behavior; humans are innately curious and are often attracted to the most interesting and compelling surrounding objects and events. Many of us are easily distracted and we instinctively turn and look for the source of a car horn, siren, or angry voice.

Rubbernecking on the Football Field

On the gridiron, the most interesting and compelling object is the football and fans will impulsively visually track the ball (and the skill players who possess it for much of the game). Football officials do not enjoy this luxury; as with a dignitary’s secret service detail, officials spend a significant amount of time observing action away from the perceived center of attention.

Officiating is a team sport. One of the first lessons new officials learn is to trust partners to make correct decisions in their respective coverage areas. Only one player out of 22 possesses the ball. In many cases, only one set of eyes should be on the ball carrier. All other officials must focus on their keys and assigned areas to observe the remaining 21 players.

Consequently, crews should very rarely have multiple whistles when the ball is dead by rule. More than two whistles may indicate someone is ball-watching instead of observing his assigned off-ball area.

Occasions When Rubbernecking Is Most Likely

The following examples will not be a comprehensive mechanics manual review; instead, they will identify occasions when rubbernecking is most likely.

Free Kick

It’s tempting to watch the ball in flight until the receiver catches the ball, then turn to focus on kick coverage and blockers. Sideline officials will self-identify as rubberneckers when they wind the clock after the ball is touched by the receiving team in the middle of the field.

Pregame conversations should include the specific kicking team players each official will track after the ball is kicked, and the subsequent coverage areas as officials transition from watching individual players to specific zones.

Officials should not watch the ball in flight but sense its location based on player reactions and peripheral vision. Deep sideline officials should quickly shift attention to the ball from kicking team players and blockers only if their pylon is threatened.

Focus on the umpire during this free kick. His key is the wedge in the middle of the field. The ball does not threaten the pylon, so the umpire should not look back at the ball as it is fielded.

He gives himself away as a rubbernecker by winding the clock (the referee’s job). He doesn’t look at his assigned area until about halfway into the clip when the K and R players have already collided between the R-20 and R-30.

Running Play Away

The rubbernecking temptation is with the wing official on the opposite side of the field as the ball is going away. This official does not have relevant point-of-attack responsibilities, but his eyes still may be drawn to the ball because he erroneously dismisses the players behind the ball carrier as immaterial.

As the ball goes away, one official is often solely responsible for observing multiple players dispersed behind the play over a large area. Linemen may still be engaged and players knocked to the ground may get up and assume further contact well behind the play is justified because the ball is still live.

While the ball is live, the opposite official must adopt a dead ball officiating mindset by scanning the players behind the point of attack for unnecessary activity.

This is one of my favorite video clips because the line judge demonstrates perfect eye discipline. The run goes away from him and he doesn’t focus on the ball carrier. Instead, he watches the players behind the runner. Watch the facemask foul by B22 at the A-39. Amazing get by the LJ!

Passing Play

It is a difficult mental transition for new referees to stay with the quarterback after he releases the ball downfield. The excitement is no longer in the backfield and the temptation is to look downfield to witness the result of the throw.

Referees must trust their crewmates to correctly observe assigned areas and make appropriate rulings. The crowd noise and the behavior of the players in his line of sight may be the referee’s only indication of the success or failure of the pass.

It’s also tempting for wing officials to stare into the backfield, especially when crowd noise increases as the pocket disintegrates. Downfield wings can glance quickly back toward the line of scrimmage after a few seconds to determine the quarterback’s status, but it’s imprudent to focus on the quarterback and lose sight of assigned receivers.

In this clip, the formation is balanced, so the back judge’s initial key is the outside receiver on the line judge’s side and the line judge’s key is the inside receiver. At the snap, the line judge completely ignores his key and looks down the line until well after the pass is thrown.

It just so happens the LJ’s key is knocked to the ground and the BJ throws his flag for defensive pass interference. If the LJ had focused on his key, we’d have two flags on the play. If the BJ had looked to the other side of the field, this foul may have been missed.

Runner Breaks Free

When a runner breaks free from pursuers, all eyes are understandably focused on the ensuing footrace to the goal line. In this case, only the deepest official should have eyes on the ball; unless the sideline or pylon is threatened, all other officials should be looking behind the runner at trailing players.

This is a perfect example of dead ball officiating principles applied while the ball is live. Also, the trailing officials (referee following a long pass or run and back judge following an interception or punt return) should not progress beyond any players that lag behind the play.

In this video, the runner is behind the defense on the way to the goal line. We only need one set of eyes (the back judge) on the ball. You’ll see as the line judge comes into the picture, he is also looking at the runner. His job is to look behind the runner and watch for players peeling off to hit opponents. The scoring team’s players will most likely commit the fouls behind the play.

In this video, the line judge correctly watches the players behind the runner. The back judge has the goal line, so the LJ doesn’t need to watch the runner or hustle to the pylon. The LJ must still pay attention if the runner is close to the sideline to kill the clock if the runner steps out of bounds short of the goal line.

Field Goal or Try

Even a slight glance at the ball is inappropriate for officials not stationed under the uprights. The ball is the most compelling object for most people in the stadium, especially on a long field goal attempt, but most officials will not witness the kick in flight.

The referee is watching the holder and kicker, the umpire is watching the snapper and interior linemen, and the officials not under the goalpost are observing blocks and the aftermath of the contact at the line.

One important 5-man crew pregame discussion is to determine who is observing the block on the end of the line on the side vacated by the wing positioned under the upright.

In 5-person mechanics in Colorado, the wing official facing the holder goes under the upright opposite the BJ. The LJ has the entire line of scrimmage. He must focus on the line and resist the urge to follow the ball in flight.


Sideline officials may be tempted to watch the punter catch and kick the ball or focus on the receiver catching the ball. Only the referee should watch the punter and only the covering official, typically the back judge, should witness the catch.

The sideline officials’ focus should include blocks on kicking team players followed by coverage around and in front of the kick receiver. As with the free kick, there is no need to focus on uncontested players in space.

However, officials can foresee potential problems by observing approach angles and the physical relationship between blockers and would-be tacklers. Unlike the field goal or try, sideline officials can momentarily locate the ball in flight to help predict pending action.

In this video, the LJ looks into the backfield after the snap and completely ignores his keys until about halfway through the clip. Wing players must watch their keys at the snap and resist the temptation to rubberneck.

Forward Progress Spot

When the ball is dead by rule, the official marking the forward progress spot must not approach the spot with head down and eyes on the ground. It’s a pithy comment, but the ground has never caused a personal foul.

The official should not immediately look at the referee to signal the down, look at the chains, or turn to the ball helper to receive a clean ball. The covering official should keep his focus on players until they separate and then attend to subsequent actions.

In this video, the line judge witnesses a big collision and defensive players end up in the opponent’s team box. The line judge has his head completely down staring at the forward progress spot. He doesn’t need to race to the spot. His attention should be on the players out of bounds. When the colors separate, he can then proceed to the FP spot.