An Ex-Player's Guide To Exploiting The NFL's Replacement Refs

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From: Nate Jackson
To: John Koblin, Barry Petchesky, Brian Burke, Stefan Fatsis

The replacement refs know that the replacement refs are a problem. You can see them flitting about trying to please everyone, nervously recalling their newly learned NFL-specific rules on the fly. They're under the microscope, because we built the microscope, and what else are we going to do with it?


And sure, it's important to have competent refs. But these ones will be fine if we give them a little breathing room. They don't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Roger Goodell's negotiating tactics are like Kim Jong Il's. So is his ego. He'll keep squeezing the refs till they fit in his pocket, and the Goodellization of the NFL will be complete. Then he can get to work on his uranium-enrichment facility.


In the meantime, the refs are so busy nervously making sure they cross every I and dot every T—or, shit, is it the other way around?—that they're opening the door for crafty players to manipulate the rules in their favor. Here are some of the main areas where NFL players can exploit the opportunity:

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Holding: The NFL is a holding league. Everyone holds. How do you think you stop a snarling beast from going where he wants to go? You use good technique and swivel your hips and stay square and ... bullshit. Either you put the crown of your helmet under his chin, which is now illegal, or you grab him and you hold him. Ideally, it's both. It's the way you hold that determines whether or not you catch a flag.


Here's the general technique. When you engage a man on a block, you shoot your head, shoulders, and hands into his general torso area. Your head and shoulders supply the pop that you hope stuns him, but your hands supply the control. The shoulder pads come down just inside the armpits and cover the chest. That's the best place to fit your hands, with your fingers literally underneath the pads. But that bull's-eye is a rarity. Most of the time you shoot your hands and grab whatever you can—pads, jersey, neck hair—and pull him toward you.

But you have to keep your feet moving. Refs overlook the grabbing as long as you stay squarely in front of your man. If he breaks away from your positioning, you have to let him go, or a flag is coming. Usually. But in last week's games, blockers were given leeway to hold on longer.


Another effective form of holding is to shoot the hands and grab the outside of the shoulder pads, just over the deltoids. Totally illegal, but tolerated to a point. This is a tactic used on the edge of a run play, when you're working against a defender who's trying to contain the play or to chase a running back who's bouncing outside. Your man doesn't want to go through you; he wants to run away from you. A strong hand on his shoulder will keep him from doing it.

This is also a great technique for punt returns. You come off the ball hard, as if you're rushing the punt, your man lowers his weight to take on your rush, you engage him with an initial pop—then grab and hold on. Sometimes the ref yells "Let him go!" and you do, or else the flag is thrown. Or after the play, they'll tell you to cut it out next time. They don't want to call a penalty on every return, so they let you know when they think you're pushing it.


But the replacement refs are too concerned about enforcing the rulebook to issue any unofficial warnings. It's the Wild West on returns. Holding, blocking in the back, biting—they're letting it all ride, which is great. That means more big punt returns. Who doesn't love that?

Pass interference: In the battle between receiver and cornerback, the ref sets the terms, and precedent is established early. Corners like to get grabby. Receivers like to get pushy. And with a team of refs struggling to keep track of how many timeouts are left and thinking about whether or not to call a touchdown a touchdown when they know it's not a touchdown, and repeating the mantra "Stay off the head" all game, there's room for more extracurriculars downfield.


When the ball is in the air, the receiver has the advantage. Pushing off is an art form, and when done well, creates the right amount of separation at the right time, turning good coverage into bad coverage with a flick of the wrist. And that's all it is—a flick.

If you put a hand on his chest and push, even a scabby ref might reach for his cloth. But a push with the back of the hand off the hip or lower torso area, or the use of a "flipper," like on a dolphin, arm tucked in and using the elbow-flip to create the separation, often goes undetected. And with these guys, it always goes undetected. That means more catches! More statistics! Yay, fantasy football!


General tomfoolery: Football is a wild-man's game. Emotions run high. People get excited, talk shit, scream obscenities, get in each other's faces, and celebrate like lunatics when they do something awesome. That shouldn't be tamped down and suppressed. That should be celebrated and embraced.

Fuck that act-like-you've-been-there stuff. This isn't a sacred institution. Act like you've never been there before and you'll never be there again. Act like you're out of your mind, because you are. The energy on an NFL football field does not promote levelheadedness or rational contemplation. It promotes frothing and grunting and pushing the Nitro button all the way down. I say embrace it. Don't put a lid on it.


Here is where the replacement refs are genuinely improving the game. Regular officials have enough attention left over to enforce the NFL's incredibly uptight rules about player conduct. The replacements are desperately focused on things that really matter, like down and distance. So they are allowing players to celebrate more, yell more, and get up in each other's faces more—knowing that it's harmless, it's natural, and that it will pass almost immediately. It's healthy communication, that's all.

Otherwise players are forced to bottle it up, and who knows when it'll get to come out again? Maybe when you walk up to one at the bar around closing time and tell him "You're not as big as I thought you'd be." Football is a game, and game day is the players' chance to have fun. Let them enjoy themselves while it lasts. For the fan, there's always the next game. For the player, it's always almost over.


Nate Jackson played tight end for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. His writing has also appeared in Slate and The New York Times. He is working on a book about life in the NFL, to be published by HarperCollins.