Line judge on the sideline

Wing Official Essential Elements: Be a Complete Wing

Each football official is responsible for a specific set of tasks before, during, and after a down. For the two wing officials positioned on the line of scrimmage during a scrimmage down, correctly marking forward progress is arguably their most important responsibility.

This activity seems relatively simple at face value; proceed to the spot where the ball is dead by rule and then display that spot to the umpire or center official so he can place the ball. However, there are a few important nuances to this seemingly straightforward activity.

This article will address a few of the most relevant principles regarding the forward progress spot and line to gain.

Wing Primary Responsibilities

When the ball is dead by rule, wing officials have two primary responsibilities: mark the forward progress spot, and dead-ball officiate.

Forward Progress is the Wings’ Most Important Product

Unfortunately, many wing officials become laser-focused on one small magical spot on the field and indiscriminately rush to physically mark that 5-inch square piece of real estate at all costs, at the expense of appropriate dead-ball officiating.

The forward progress spot will not disappear, it will not move, and it does not need to be “captured” with the foot. The wing official will not forget the location of the spot and does not need to stare at the ground to ensure the forward progress spot remains in place.

Dead-ball Officiate

As soon as the ball is dead by rule, the official must transition his full attention to dead-ball officiating, which includes keeping his head up while looking at players and not the ground (the ground has never caused a personal foul).

Instead of rushing headlong to a specific spot, he must instead focus on correctly positioning himself to properly observe all players in his coverage area. This may include delaying arriving at the forward progress spot until the players separate.

This transition from observing and mentally noting forward progress to obtaining a suitable dead-ball officiating position is a mechanic that requires discretion is often incorrectly executed.

Move With a Purpose

All physical movement should be for a specific purpose. During the dead-ball period, which includes the time immediately after the ball is dead by rule and when the wing official physically marks the forward progress spot, the wing official must position himself to obtain the most advantageous view of the players in his coverage area.

In some cases, this means wing officials should NOT move at all, or should move AWAY from players. It may seem incorrect to stand and wait to move to a yard line to mark forward progress until players along the sideline get up and separate from that area, but this is more appropriate than stepping into a pile of bodies to mark a spot.

Whenever Possible, Maintain a Cushion

Wing officials can properly mark forward progress by stepping onto the field, or by moving out of bounds, while simultaneously observing players and advancing to the appropriate forward progress location.

Unless physical presence is mandatory to separate players who are bodily engaged, officials should always maintain a cushion of at least 3-5 yards between themselves and players. Incorrectly reducing the distance to players is likely the most common error I witness when observing wing officials.

From Day 1 of new officials training, we were taught to accordion onto the field while marking forward progress. Sometimes, the accordion action is not the proper mechanic; when the ball is downed between the numbers and the sideline, it is most correct for the wing official to remain on or near the sideline while marking the forward progress spot as each step we take closer to players will reduce our field of view and will inhibit dead-ball officiating.

The Goal Line and Line-to-Gain are “Money Lines”

Colorado officiating icon Ray Lutz stated, “We want to strive to be as accurate as possible on all progress marks, but we want to be the most accurate with our progress marks on all plays short of or very near to the line to gain.

Remember, the goal line is always a line to gain and offers us some of our greatest challenges when forward progress is involved.” Because the line to gain and the goal line are so important, one or both require special consideration for each play.

Know the Line-to-Gain Before the Snap

Ray Lutz asserted “wing officials should ‘program’ the distance to the line to gain” and should make actual eye contact with the line to gain before each snap. This allows the wings to move to the line while watching the action and mentally prepares them to execute the proper mechanics if the line to gain is “threatened.”

When I worked as a Linesman, I invited my box person to participate in my presnap routine. As I backed up to the sideline after indicating the down to the referee, I asked the box person to verbally state the number on the box and the location of the line to gain. “Mark, I have 3 on the box and we’re going to the 35.”

This statement before every snap helped me mentally identify and lock in the requisite yard line.

Be at the Line-to-Gain Before the Ball Arrives!

As often as possible, and depending on crew mechanics, wings should endeavor to physically be at the line to gain before the ball arrives. Most mechanics manuals cite specific precepts and corresponding distances from the line of scrimmage to the goal line for wings to immediately proceed to the pylon.

In many cases, we should treat the line to gain as a “mini-goal line” and should position ourselves to have a direct view of the line to gain when the runner is downed. Having the proper angle when the ball arrives enhances the credibility of the official’s corresponding spot.

The lack of awareness and proper positioning in reference to the line to gain is a common lapse with inexperienced officials.

Pinch to the Ball to Sell Your Spot

When the ball is downed within one yard of the line to gain (either short or beyond), the wing officials need to demonstrate a sense of urgency and purpose which shows they realize this is an important spot. As such, the wings must hustle under control to the ball’s location or until they meet resistance (bodies).

As part of “selling” the proper forward progress spot, one of the wings must physically spot the ball. It makes no sense to have the umpire or center official spot the ball and then call for a measurement. The lack of urgency or improper mechanics promotes uncertainty and casts doubt on the wing’s forward progress spot.

Appropriate urgency adds credibility and shows the players and coaches the crew can, and will, properly manage the game.

The Context of the Play Determines Speed

There is a dichotomy regarding wing mechanics relating to the line to gain and forward progress. Sometimes wings must hustle and demonstrate a sense of urgency. In other cases, wings must patiently slow down and delay marking forward progress.

Wings must always consider context and environment. Maintaining proper cushion from the players is paramount and the wing across the field can provide validation of or correction to the forward progress spot if the ball is downed away from the sideline.

In many cases, wing officials should ignore the “accordion” instinct and avoid reducing the distance to the ball to guarantee a proper dead-ball officiating field of view.

When the ball is downed close to the sideline, wing officials should moderate the urge to rush to the forward progress spot, and should especially avoid stepping into or over players. In other cases, wings should exhibit a sense of urgency and “sell” a forward progress spot by assertively pinching onto the field if it is specifically related to the line to gain or goal line.