By Bill Bradley, contributing editor
Dean Blandino is in the middle of his second offseason as the NFL's vice president of officiating.
His offseasons have been just as busy as his game weeks. He has been involved in the NFL Competition Committee, visiting NFL coaches, explaining rules at this week's NFL Rookie Symposium and, soon, rolling out rules presentations for all 32 clubs.
Blandino took time from the Rookie Symposium earlier this week and talked to NFL Evolution about what rookies most want to know, last season's player-safety rules and key changes for the upcoming season.
What do you do during the offseason to prepare the upcoming season?
Right now our primary focus is our officiating training camp in July, so we're preparing for that. We're getting our video and presentations together for that four-day clinic in Dallas. Then, we'll start looking at training camps. We have a group of officials from there that go to each training camp. We'll spend time at our clinic talking about the things that they're going to have to go over with each club. We're putting together the training camp video with NFL Films that players will watch as part of their officials' presentation. Then, the officials will be there to answer any questions the players may have about the emphasis or rules changes or anything else officiating related.
How many teams will you visit during the training camp tour this season?
For training camp, with the way the schedule is with a lot going on, I'll probably only do two or three. But I've done our coaching staff visits during the spring -- when we visit all of the staffs -- and I've been to about 16 of those and I've been able to go over the rules changes in even more detail with the coaches than we do with the players.
You're talking at the NFL Rookie Symposium this week. What do you talk about with them and what are some of the questions you get from rookies in terms of anticipating their first year of NFL officiating?
What we did today was we went over some of the major differences between the college rules and the pro rules. We talked about the rules changes and points of emphasis for 2014 and some of the rules involving protections for players. And we got a lot questions about what kind of techniques players can use to avoid getting fouls or getting fines. There are more details-rules questions, like about 10-second runoffs and things like that. There was a lot of good dialogue that went on.
Are timing questions the biggest area the rookies ask about?
That's one of the things we cover, obviously, with some of the rules differences. In college, the clock stops after every first down and in the pros it doesn't. That's something we want to make sure they're aware of. You get into a hurry-up offense and rookies might think the clock stops temporarily. They don't have that luxury in the NFL. Most of the questions revolve around hits on defenseless players, sportsmanship, taunting and things like that. What is and what isn't a foul. That's what we want to bring to players -- more clarity -- so they have an idea going in what the expectations are.
Looking back at last season, how did the year play out in terms of player safety rules and fines?
I was very encouraged by what we saw in 2013. The big change was the crown of the helmet rule. We didn't really have a lot of examples of it (during the season). I think that was a testament to the coaches and players recognizing what the tactic and technique we were trying to get out of the game. The coaches had the players adhering to that. That was very positive, but we certainly don't feel like the work is done. We're going to continue to look at rules to protect our players. Overall, I thought 2013 was a positive year as it related to safety.
What about the line overload rule on place kicks? There seemed to be some confusion by some coaches who acted like they didn't know about the player safety rule.
I think it was a brand new rule and you really didn't have any previous rules close to that. We never really had a restriction on the defense as it related to scrimmage kicks like that other than covering up the center. I think there was an adjustment period for our officials to make sure that we are checking (for the violation). It needed to become part of our pre-snap mechanics to count those players and be aware of a situation where player may shift at the last second and create an overload of more than six players on either side of the snapper. It was certainly a transition we're going to look at. One of the challenges we have just with the officiating part of it is that the side judge is responsible in a lot of situations for that and the side judge is not an official that is normally officiating on closed-line plays. So we're spending a lot of time with our side judges in that area on field goals and extra points.
So this rule caused you to make some adjustments with the officiating crew during the offseason?
That's not anything different than what we would do in other areas. We work on the mechanics and the procedures and we try to find ways to improve it. We're constantly trying to do that.
Entering training camps, what do you think is the biggest rule change you will have to explain?
I think we've got one new player-safety rule change in the roll-up block. That's something we'll emphasize with offensive linemen and how they can make that block legally. It's legal to cut a defender from the side, but you can't roll up on either the back of the legs or, now in 2014, the side of the legs. So we're really looking for that rolling type action that potentially traps the leg and can cause injury. Then, it's really the sportsmanship part that will continue to be a point of emphasis, like taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct. We'll show players examples of what is a foul and what is legal.
The biggest offseason push for change from the Competition Committee was for greater respect among players. How will officiating play into that?
Mutual respect is always a point of emphasis. I think when it comes to officials, the rule is clear: Insulting and using threatening language at any opponent is a foul and I think that's what the officials are going to be looking for. They understand the game is emotional and there is going to be chatter back and forth. As long as it doesn't cross that line in terms of being an insult directed at an opponent, then it's OK. Taunting has been a point of emphasis (in previous years). We had nine taunting fouls in 2012 and that went up to 34 in 2013, so it's something officials are mindful of. We just want to be sure that players understand that emotion is fine, but make sure we're not stepping over the line in terms of that threatening/abusive type of language directed at your opponent.
Because of the push for greater respect on the field, are you anticipating a spike in unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and fines?
Usually when we have a point of emphasis, we know there could be a spike initially. But usually what happens is the coaches and the players say if the officials are consistent -- and that's what we're going to strive to be -- then they understand what the line is and what's going to be called. The goal is to let the players decide how many fouls are going to be called in the game and the officials just call the fouls that are there. So we feel like if we're consistent, then the coaches and the players will understand, then they will modify their behavior.
What new player safety rules might we be discussing a year from now?
One of the things the Competition Committee does is look at all of the player injuries and looks for trends. I think one of the things we'll continue to look at -- piggy-backing on this roll-up block rule -- is the low blocks around the line of scrimmage, like chop blocks on running plays. ... The high-low block that's legal on a running play. ... That's one of the things the committee is going to track during the year. If we do get more injuries in that area, that's something we want to monitor and make sure the defensive players get those protections as well.