When Al McColman was first hired as a downfield official in 1978 to decide what was, and what was not, pass interference, the decision was pretty straight forward.
Did the defensive player make contact with the receiver? If so, flag.
Did the defensive player look back at the ball when it was in flight before making the play on the receiver? If no, flag.
Did the defensive player grab any part of the receiver's shirt, shorts or general anatomy? If yes, flag.
Ah, the good old days, when receivers were sacrosanct.
Since those halcyon times, the rules regarding who can do what to whom on the way down the cow pasture have changed so many times long-term fans can barely sort out what's what.
The downfield officials (side judge, back judge, field judge) spend a lot of time trying to stay on top of it.
Defensive players are now making contact all over the place, putting a hand in, grabbing a bit of sweater, leaning over on a guy trying to catch the ball. None of those are interference, per se.
"Things are a lot more grey," says McColman, sitting at the high-tech control centre in Toronto.
"You have to do something to [the receiver] that, in the eyes of the official on the field, gains an advantage," he says, setting up to run dozens of examples for the prying eyes of the questioning journalist.
Al loves to show film - lots of film. Like this one here that features a defender accidently tripping a receiver. That drew a flag, even though the trip wasn't intentional.
The accidental trip created an advantage. Therefore, a flag.
Tough times for officials
These have been tough times recently for downfield officials. The CFL had to fire one earlier this year after a particularly egregious miss, though they said it was a decision made because of a longer range series of events.
A couple of years ago, the fans, and a number of writers (guilty) were all over the downfield officials for throwing too many flags. Hurting the game! Slowing things down!
So the league, meaning the general managers, coaches and owners, asked the officials to, you know, cut it out.
This season, those same fans and a number of writers (guilty again) have been all over the downfield officials for not throwing enough flags. And no, we can't make up our minds, thank you.
Frustrating. McColman says it's a case of the fans being "naïve to the circumstances." He's seen many an occasion where one side of a stadium saw one thing, and the other side saw something else, simply because they had different views of the same play.
Of course, those views were in real time. Then, there's the great god television, an unforgiving deity who can run that close call over and over again, only now in SUPER SLOW MOTION, with a BIG CIRCLE around it so there's no missing things.
And they can even add a big magnifying effect that brings it RIGHT UP TO YOUR EYEBALLS. You know, just like the side judge gets to see it in real life. Only better.
How can the fans not come to the conclusion the downfield judges in the CFL are the WORST REFS IN $%$#@#% HISTORY!?!
McColman understands some may think of this as an impossible job, but hey, it's the one they have.
"Any officiating job, whether in the CFL, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball - those are the parametres you understand going in," he says. "And to some degree, that's why we go in, because we want to measure ourselves ... on a weekly basis [we] want to measure ourselves and see if we can stack up and do the job."
It also doesn't help that on any given Sunday afternoon the fans are going back and forth between the NFL and the CFL where the pass interference calls are not all the same.
Remember that accidental trip back there? In the NFL, that's not a flag, it's an accident.
One major advantage
There is one major advantage to television replay. What TV taketh away it can also giveth.
"Let's look at a few," says McColman, as he starts playing with the buttons and running plays.
In the first one, a defender is running downfield, reading the eyes of the defender as we were taught years ago, but instead of looking back at the ball he simply times his jump and puts his hands up as the faux pigskin arrives.
"Screening. That's screening!" calls the amateur ref.
"No, it's not," replies the one who knows what he's doing.
Why? Because the rules were changed. You don't have to look back anymore as long as when you put your hands up you don't block the eyesight of the receiver.
Here's another: Receiver in the end zone battles a defender, puts an arm up and the ball tips away.
"No flag. Nothing happened."
"Flag," says McColman. "There was an arm bar."
Right. If you look away from the raised arm ... lower ... right there ... you can see the defender holding the receiver's other arm. Sneaky little defender.
That arm bar is, apparently, the hardest thing on the field to see. Except on the replay. In super slow motion.
Does it help that most of the replays show that the officials got it right?
"That's gratifying to look at something and say 'Got that right, got that right, got that right,' " says McColman, who adds recognizing your errors is crucial. "Self evaluation is the biggest single tool you can have. If you don't self-evaluate yourself honestly, you're foolish ... get out of the business."
Being a downfield official, he says, is even tougher because of modern offences sending out as many as four receivers on a side. Lots happening at once. Lots to see.
But somebody has to do it.
So here's the key question for the playoffs: Did one man get an advantage over the other guy? If so, throw that flag in your living room.
Don't hit the dog.
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