In April, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino surprised a lot of league people by leaving to take a job with Fox Sports. Blandino’s role with the NFL was to eat shit whenever an official or an officiating crew screwed up. Now, he gets to serve as an in-game rules analyst alongside Mike Pereira.
It should be stressed that the officiating department Blandino used to oversee is not responsible for crafting the rules—that job falls to the NFL’s competition committee—but to simply interpret those rules, however muddled they may be. It should also be stressed that Blandino can be a good sport. Deadspin recently spoke to Blandino by phone. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I want to start off with a new rule for this year, which I’ve taken to calling the Vontaze Burfict Rule. How do you parse a rule like that? It was like, you can’t hit a guy from the side or from behind, but it looked like Burfict had hit Anthony Sherman from the front. What’s the explanation of that rule and how the officials are going to interpret it?
I think the rule really went in because there was a place where defenders—especially linebackers—were just eliminating receivers in that five-yard legal chuck zone. And it was mostly on shallow crossing routes, where they’d approach from the side and basically try to eliminate. We saw some contact in the head/neck area that really was something that the league wants to get players more and more away from.
Every receiver has an official assigned to that receiver; once they’re in a route, you have an official watching that receiver. And, again, they’re going to be looking for the defender approaching from the side or behind, and it’s going to be straight—if you’re going to make that contact, you’ve got to be square to the receiver, shoulders square. If there’s any kind of an angle, which is what they deemed the Burfict play to be, then you can’t go to the head/neck area. So that’s really what they’re going to be looking for—if it’s really straight-on and the receiver can protect himself, if the shoulders are square, it’ll be legal, but if there’s any type of angle, and you make that contact with the head/neck area, it’s going to be a foul.
That’s what I was a little confused about. The rule said “square,” and I didn’t exactly know what being square meant. The video the league put out to show players examples of what was legal and what wasn’t kind of showed guys being blocked or running right into the defender. But in this case it wasn’t as clear-cut—Sherman was running at Burfict, but he had turned his head back toward the quarterback, and it looked like Burfict had hit Sherman in the chest.
Yeah, there’s always going to be judgment involved in that. But, again, if there’s any angle, that’s going to be considered a foul.
Another new rule is the crackback blocks for receivers in motion. Can you walk me through that one and what the officials will be looking for?
It was a minor change; that rule’s been in place for a while. It’s basically, you can’t block from the outside-in, back toward the ball. It started with protection below the waist. You’d have a safety or a linebacker coming up into the box, and they really couldn’t protect themselves from that crackback block that was coming from the outside. The change basically was that the man in motion—so if you come in back toward the ball—regardless of where you are at the snap, you can’t go low, below the waist, and you can’t go to the head/neck [area]. So it just gives that defensive player some extra protection. Because in the past, if the player who came in motion, if he got within two yards of the tackle, he could crack that defender. And now it basically says you can’t do that if you’re in motion. You’d have to come to a complete stop within two yards of the tackle, prior to the snap if you’re going to be able to make that block legally.
You can see how these constant tweaks to the rule book make things more difficult for officials, can’t you? Some of these rules are so particular, it becomes intractable for a lot of people, let alone an official trying to make that decision in real time.
Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s something that we’ve wrestled with for a while. If you look at the evolution of the rule book, it started with very general concepts, and there weren’t a lot of specifics. And when you have general concepts, it leaves a lot of interpretation up to the individual official, and that creates less consistency. So things would come up, and the rules committee—the competition committee—would create a rule to address a specific situation. But when you do that over the course of 50, 60 years, then the rules become more complicated. I think that’s what we’ve seen over time.
I know in the last four or five years, we’ve really tried to take an approach to simplify the rules and make it easier for the officials. Because, again, they’re out there, they’re trying to cover their position, they’re going to make a split-second decision. And to have to go through eight or nine different things in their head, it makes it harder to make an accurate decision. Simplifying the rules is good for the players and coaches, the officials. It’s taking a more holistic approach. It’s not just trying to write a rule for one play situation that may come up once every 10 years.
Did you used to hear from a lot of officials about how difficult some of these rules could make their jobs?
Sure. We would actually solicit that information from them. Every year we’d ask the officials to send us any potential rules changes—any rules that you feel are hard to officiate, hard to be consistent. And we would get all that information and put it together for the competition committee to review. So absolutely we would want that information from the officials.
Yeah, that was a hard one to officiate. Again, that was a good example of the league several years ago seeing some things creep in that they felt were unsportsmanlike conduct, and then creating this list [of celebrations] that you couldn’t do. And it became hard for the officials to keep track of that. There are so [many] other things that go on during the game that officials have to be aware of, that are more important for the outcome of the game, and now we’re asking them to try to figure out whether this celebration was legal or not. I think that was part of it. I think we’ll see how it goes. You certainly want to give the officials as much black and white, in terms of rules, so they don’t have to interpret too much. The last thing you want is officials overanalyzing celebrations when there are so many other important things going on during the game.
What practical effects, if any, will result from having replay decisions made in real-time by the league office?
It’s not as drastic a change as some people think. We were making decisions in the past three years in the Game Day Central, in consultation with the referees. But basically the group in New York has the final say. I think the biggest advantage is just that it makes the process more efficient. The referee’s going to be looking at a tablet, they don’t have to go over to the sideline monitor. In New York, if it’s really an obvious decision, they can make that decision, let the referee see it, and just be more efficient in the process. I think that’ll be the biggest benefit, at least initially.
Are there any rule changes that you’d like to see, now that you’re out of the league?
You know, I haven’t given that a ton of thought. There were always little tweaks and things—we go through the rule book every year and we tweak certain things, like we were talking about earlier, just to try to make things easier to understand and easier for the officials to administer. There’s a couple of minor things, but I’d like to see how this season goes, to see if there are any trends that come up, and then we can give that some thought.
From all your years with the league, what’s the one thing most football fans or viewers most often misunderstand about officials, or think they know but maybe didn’t really know?
I think the biggest misconception about officials is they just work on Sundays or Monday night, and then they go back and do their other job and they’re not studying or working on football during the week. Believe me, I know firsthand the amount of hours that officials put in during the week, and a lot of them do have other jobs, but they’re really taking time away from those other jobs to do football. There’s conference calls, there’s videos that they’re responsible for watching, there’s tests that they have to take. They get evaluated on every play of every game. They get a game report, they get graded—similar to what the players go through. I think that’s probably the biggest misconception. It’s just the amount of preparation, study, and communication that officials have during the week with their crew, with the league office, in preparation for their upcoming game.
Along those lines, we’re now going to have a handful of full-time officials. What effect do you think that will have, given the commitment that officials were already making during the season?
I think the full-time officials will certainly improve communication. One of the challenges you have from the officiating department [is] trying to get 124, 125 officials from all over the country on the same page. You have 17 different crews, and sometimes the crews may have their own different philosophies with how they do things. That was one of the challenges, and having full-time officials and being able to use those officials to communicate to the rest of the group I think will help create better consistency on the field.
What will the full-timers do during the offseason?
I think they’re going to be working with the competition committee. They’re going to be going and visiting clubs; every year in the offseason, we’d go out and see all 32 clubs and meet with their coaching staffs for two-to-three hours, and go over video and any issues that they had, go over the rules changes. So the full-time officials will be a part of that, and I think that will foster better relationships with the clubs, and better communication. I think they’ll be a part of scouting lower-level college officials, mentoring them, bringing them along, so that they’re better prepared when they enter the NFL. So they’ll be a bunch of things that they’ll be doing during the offseason that I think will benefit the overall program.
You once told Peter King about how much team officials would complain to you, when you were the head of officiating. What was the craziest story or feedback you got from team personnel?
I think there’s so many that I could go into that are probably not fit for print, but—
We can print it!
Yeah. Exactly, I know, right? I won’t name the coach, but the thing that always stands out in my mind is not what was said, it was the timing of when the call occurred. It was a primetime game—I think it was a Thursday night game, and the game ended at 11:29 Eastern, and I got a phone call at 11:32 from a head coach. And I asked him, I said, “Did you even shake hands yet before you called me?” Those are the types of things that stand out. And I get it, from a coach’s perspective, they’re under so much pressure, and officiating is something that affects games, and sometimes it’s not always positive. But once you see it from their perspective, you just try to get on the same page, and typically for the most part they always understood where you were coming from. That’s how I always approached it.
Do you recall what that coach’s issue was at the time?
Yeah, it was a missed holding call late in the game, and I think it led to one of the players getting injured. He was pretty fired up and was great about it, but it was just the timing, where I never got a phone call that soon after a game. It was pretty surprising to get a call that soon from a head coach. GMs? Yeah, sure, because they’re up in the press box. But not coaches on the sidelines.
Was there any particular reason you decided to leave the NFL when you did? There were a few reports that the league was kind of caught off-guard by your departure.
I didn’t think that the opportunity [a job offer from Fox] would be available this soon. I knew at some point in my career it might be an avenue I would want to pursue. When the opportunity presented itself it just made a lot of sense on a lot of different levels. I think the biggest thing was just the quality of life—there’s so much about the NFL I love, and it wasn’t what was wrong with the NFL, it’s just what was right about this new opportunity, and being able to branch out and spend more time with my kids, and do those types of things. Really it was just very attractive for me at this stage of my life.
I know it came right after you were given the centralized replay authority. Was it a sudden thing, or was it something you’ve been pondering for a while?
It was something—we’re not talking about a couple years—but I think in the big picture it did come up and escalate pretty quickly. But it wasn’t a one- or two-week deal; this was something that was over the course of a couple of months. And it was a decision that I agonized over for a while, and ultimately made the most sense for where I am with my life at the moment.
Again, now that you’re no longer with the league, did Dez Bryant catch the ball or not?
[Laughs] You know, you’re like the hundredth person that has asked me that, and I can say this: No he did not catch the ball. Whether I’m with the NFL or not, that was the rule at the time—and it’s still the rule. And if they change the rule, maybe that becomes a catch, but it’s still not a catch.
One other thing: There was video a few years ago of you exiting the Cowboys’ party bus …
Oh, yeah. I remember that, sure.
What happened with that, really? Like, what’s the real story?
That was something that I think kind of took on a life of its own. In that role, you’re not only in charge of officiating, but you’re dealing with coaches and GMs and owners and creating relationships. I always felt that if I had good relationships with people, they’d be more likely to understand where I was coming from. Especially when a lot of your conversations are not necessarily positive. And that was just something where, you’re out to dinner, and you’re spending time with people that you work with, and it ended up making it onto TMZ. That was not something that I anticipated at the time.
So it was more like just any interaction you might have if you were out with any owner or a team official? Just doing your job?
Yeah, sure. Exactly. It’s just that that one happened to take place in Hollywood, with cameras around, so...