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Zebras in town

by Mark Daniels

He's easily the most well known of the NFL's referees. He certainly talks the most when explaining replay calls. He's got guns for biceps. But he also conducted by far the best rules and points of emphasis seminar I've attended over the past 10 years or so. Ed Hochuli and most of his Sunday NFL crew arrived in Green Bay today to attend three days of practice, their training camp so to speak, before the Pre-Season begins.

More importantly, Hochuli conducted the league's annual rules seminar for the players, coaches and the media.

Every year, the NFL's competition committee tweaks a few rules, experiments with others and highlights the officiating points of emphasis for the upcoming season. There were no major rule changes this year. Goal posts will be extended five feet higher above the crossbar after a couple of field goal attempts soared just above those uprights leaving some questions whether the kick was good or not. (Don Chandler's controversial FG that forced overtime in the 1965 NFL Western Conference playoff game against Baltimore at Lambeau Field led to the first increase in the height up the uprights). Game referee's will be able to consult the NFL officiating headquarters during replay reviews this year. The entire crew at each game will have microphones to communicate with each other anywhere on the field. One other minor change will have the clock continue to run when a quarterback is sacked outside of the two minute warning of each half.

As for the points of emphasis, it was pretty clear the call for defensive holding in the secondary is going to get tested, a lot. It's time to go to rules class.

Hochuli, the husky Texan who attended Texas-El Paso and is now in his 25th season as an NFL official, did a terrific job of detailing the how's and why's of this particular phase of the passing game. In fact, after a 15 minute NFL video presentation that was also shown to the players today, the first couple of questions for Ed were about the inevitable receiver-defensive back confrontations. I'l let the teacher explain:

Audio: Ed Hochuli.

I'll have more on that sportsmanlike conduct issue in a minute but as you can imagine, the DB's are already crying foul. They feel most of the passing game defense rules have been weakened so much in this era of aerial football, this could push them over the edge. Jarrett Bush has been in the league for a long time, he's drawn his share of flags. When I talked with him in the locker room today, he was wondering if the NFL is turning to touch, not tackle football:

Audio: Jarrett Bush.

It could take several weeks into the regular season before players will be able to adjust if those plays are called as tight as they were at practice.

The other major point of emphasis is on sporting, or unsportsmanlike conduct. The amount of trash talking, taunting and in your face theatrics has gotten out of hand over the past couple of years. 15 yard flags will fly if players engage in baiting opponents, showing them up, using racial, sexual or intimidating language. Excessive celebrations have already been outlawed, this year, dunking the ball over the crossbar (ala Jimmy Graham) is going to penalized. Hochuli said the NFL is very sensitive to the fact that this type of behavior has worked it's way down from the pros, to college, high school and even Pop Warner leagues.

It was a very informative hour, Hochuli was genuinely interested in explaining why calls are made the way they are, just like when he's on a network camera. He knows he gets a bit wordy at times, that's the lawyer in him coming out. He really enjoys working games at Lambeau Field, his first as an NFL referee was in that stadium in 1990. He said he loves the pressure of being asked to make split-second decisions to officiate America's most popular sport and he has no plans on hanging up his whistle.