Referees focusing on 'clear and obvious' calls as penalties drop 

When NFL teams took the field for Week 1, it wasn't just the first time in months that players and coaches took part in competitive action. It was the same way for the referees. No preseason, no training camp visits, no in-person training.

As the NFL's senior VP of officiating training and development Walt Anderson explained this week, the goal was simple.

"When we were preparing, certainly going in, we had a theme of 'clear and obvious' and we wanted that to continue throughout the year," Anderson, the 24-year veteran official who joined the league office this year, told "We had to address clear and obvious. You can't miss clear and obvious and it starts with that. Going forward we don't want all of a sudden to start calling the ticky tack stuff. We want things that are clear."

After an offseason like we've never seen, with no preseason and a significantly altered training camp due to COVID-19 restrictions, the first week of football was… fun. And offensive. In fact, teams scored 87 offensive touchdowns, the most in NFL history, and the fifth-most average combined points in history.

Officiating played a big role. The NFL made changes to its officiating office this offseason, installing Anderson and senior VP of officiating administration Perry Fewell alongside senior VP of officiating Al Riveron. Anderson has keyed training for refs, while Fewell handles the communication to teams.

They also, it seems, altered the focus.

The buzz words of "clear and obvious" became paramount, as Anderson describes, "the NFL charged us in officiating with not only improving our performance but improving our consistency. Week-to-week and game-to-game."

The numbers after Week 1 are significant.

There were 181 offensive and defensive penalties, the second-fewest in Week 1 since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, according to NFL Network research. The 84 offensive penalties and 647 offensive penalty yards were the fewest since 2002. Meanwhile, as Anderson notes, the 97 defensive penalties were the third-most since 2002 and the 1,187 defensive penalty yards were the most ever. For a good reason.

Total penalties (penalties plus those that were declined) are at 200 through Week 1 (12.5 per game). Last year was 309 (19.3 per game).

The reality is, offensive and defensive penalties in Week 1 have increased steadily over the past few years, from 197 in 2016 to 249 in 2019. Now, back to 181. It's a small sample size, of course, but still important.

Anderson was asked if the numbers are what he wanted.

"That's not as important as what the NFL likes and what the audience likes," Anderson said. "People want to see penalties that need to be called, not penalties that are ticky tack."

Even the most debated call of last week -- the offensive pass interference call on Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup against Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey -- didn't create much discussion.

"That was the correct call," said Anderson, who noted that defensive calls were up. Offensive holding calls were way down, though, which he said was an emphasis from the league's Competition Committee.

Without the safety net of pass interference calls being reviewable, Anderson said he's confident the accuracy was strong. In part, that could be because some of the mechanics of officiating have changed.

With no in-person camps, officials have met with every team virtually. They've mimicked game situations and spent hours going over plays teams sent from their practices. And, interestingly enough, the officiating department received a recommendation from the medical community that accuracy and eyesight improved if they are stationary after breaking down in their spots quicker.

So you won't see nearly as many officials chasing plays this year because that can alter what can be seen.

"As you've noticed in the past, it doesn't do any good," Anderson said. "The five or 10 yards it gives you, I'd just be better breaking down and watching. We confirmed this with the medical community, allowing our eyes to stabilize so you can see with visual acuity. All officials have good eyesight, when we miss things it's because we don't process what our good vision actually sees. Doctors told us to move less because you are more likely to see it clearly."

They've also begun reviewing tape like teams do, thanks to some new video hires to help them break down games.

"We've increased the time we interact with them," Anderson said. "We've added more resources, utilizing today's technology. And we're just communicating more as a whole."

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