Posted: Monday August 30, 2010 1:09AM ; Updated: Monday August 30, 2010 1:16PM
Peter King

Manning, Colts worry new NFL rule will have negative consequences

Story Highlights

Umpires will now stand 15 yards behind play, except for final 2 minutes of half

Nuggets on Brett Favre's ankle, Jets' interest in Adalius Thomas, more

Quotes of the week, Stat of the week and 10 Things I Think I Think

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With umpires now stationed behind the play, Peyton Manning and the Colts are worried it'll slow down their hurry-up offense.
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Odd, sort of, to be reviewing the most important week of the preseason and writing mainly about the impact of an officiating decision. But the most intriguing event of the third round of games has to do with officiating, and the effect of moving the umpire from the defensive to the offensive side of the ball so he won't be such a defenseless target in the middle of pass patterns.

I don't want to be too dramatic about it, but it's a virtual certainty that the rule will have far more impact on the Colts than on any other team in football. They won't be able to run their no-huddle offense with the same speed. And the triggerman knows it.

Peyton Manning thinks back to the Patriots-Colts game last November -- the Belichick No-Punt Game -- and is sure that game would have ended differently if the new ump rule was in place.

"If we had this rule last year,'' Manning said Saturday night, "there's no way we catch up in that New England game. We were down, what, 21 points in the fourth quarter? We wouldn't have had enough time to run enough plays to catch up. But forget about that game. Let's chart all the comeback wins where a team runs the hurry-up in the fourth quarter. How many of those games would have ended up the same way -- or would the quarterbacks have had enough time to run enough plays to come back and win?''

To recap the new rule: The umpire traditionally was the official who most often spotted the ball, then scurried back about five yards behind the defensive line of scrimmage to watch the play unfold. But last year, keeping with the recent tradition of physical plays against the ump because he was the center of a bunch of offensive crossing routes, there were approximately 100 collisions between players and umps. Three of those resulted in concussions. One resulted in an umpire needing shoulder surgery, and another ump need knee surgery after being knocked down.

The Competition Committee, backed by Commissioner Roger Goodell, deemed it a safety issue, so the ump was assigned to a spot about 15 yards behind the offensive line of scrimmage, on the opposite side of where the referee is stationed. The lone exception to the rule happens in the last two minutes of each half, when the league, in a nod to the possibility of teams running a hurry-up offense, will station the umps in their traditional spot, so as not to interfere with the offensive rhythm in a two-minute drill.

Problem is, lots of teams use the two-minute drill at times other than in the last two minutes of the half of a game. The Colts aren't alone, but they are the poster children for mastery of the quick calls and hurry-up pace.

On Sunday I asked the new NFL vice president of officiating, Carl Johnson, about Manning's claim that teams can't run hurry-up offensive series the same way they have in recent years. Which is to say, in a hurry.

"The way the new mechanic of the umpire positioning is, I don't have a resolution to that,'' said Johnson. "It's going to take a couple extra seconds to spot the ball. There's no way around that. But this is a work in progress. We're aggressively seeking ways to improve the mechanics.''

Do the math. An umpire traditionally is a stocky guy, to withstand the physicality of the position. Imagine if a team goes into the no-huddle and runs, say, seven straight plays of hurry-up, and the ump has to run in, spot the ball and then run back 12 to 15 yards. First of all, these big guys are going to be absolutely gassed. Secondly, they're going to slow the game down.

Many, many issues. One: Shouldn't the umpires now be the ones in the best physical condition, not the biggest men on the crew? I think if the league sticks with the ump behind the offense, the physical dimensions of the umpire will be altered with a nod toward a guy who can run all day. "I worry about the umpires' conditioning,'' said Indy GM Bill Polian, also a Competition Committee member. And from being on the phone about this since Thursday night, he's not the only one who worried that the current average-sized umpire is not the ideal physical specimen to be doing the job the way it's defined now.

Two: Why do the umps have to be the ones who have to spot the ball? Johnson told me they don't, and crews have been alerted that other officials, for expediency's sake, can also spot it, depending where the play ends.

Three: Why does an ump have to be so far behind the line of scrimmage on the offensive side? Johnson said he doesn't; one of the tweaks already made to the system says that as soon the umpire is behind the back or quarterback -- whoever is furthest back from the line -- the quarterback can snap the ball without penalty.

Four: Why is the "false start -- snap infringement'' penalty even called? Why not simply just do the play over? Johnson said if there was no penalty in place, then there'd be nothing to stop a quarterback from hustling to snap the ball on the edge of the rules. If the passer knew he'd be able to do the play over regardless, then why not try to play hurry-up?

Thursday night in Green Bay, the Colts twice got called for "false start -- snap infringement'' for snapping the ball before umpire Garth DeFelice had returned to his position. Once it was because the Colts' Anthony Gonzalez made a questionable reception, and Manning was hustling to the line to try to force the hand of Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy to either use one of his replay challenges or, if he didn't, to get the next play off quickly so the catch would stand. "So not only do we get penalized,'' said Manning, "but now McCarthy has plenty of time to decide whether to challenge the play or not.''

Polian's view on the infringement penalty is an interesting one. He thinks a game with a slower or older ump trying to keep up with a quick-snapping offense could be significantly affected. "I am dead-set against the penalty,'' said Polian. "It is insane. If I knew it would be this way, I'd have voted against it, and not only that, I'd have crusaded against it.''

One other interesting issue here. The NFL has created one way of ump-positioning for 56 minutes and one way for the final two minutes of each half. In a way, the league is saying, We're concerned about umpire safety, but we're still going to allow 10 or 12 plays a game, on average, to be snapped with the umps in harm's way. "It's like you saying to your kids, 'Don't touch that!' '' said Manning. "Then you say, 'Well, you can touch it a couple of times.' '' The league's trying to straddle the fine line of not affecting the game too much with the health of officials. It's a tough call.

There will be a third conference call this week with the members of the Competition Committee and Johnson to determine what further tweaks to make in the system. This much is known: The NFL is not going back to the old way of umpire-positioning. That's for sure. Goodell can't say he's concerned about umpire safety, change a rule, then change it back without letting it play out in a regular season.

On Sept. 10, two days before the first Sunday of the regular season, the league's 17 umpires and 17 referees will meet in Dallas with Johnson to discuss the new system and whether there might be some little tweaks the rank-and-file can suggest to make it a cleaner adjustment. (It'll be interesting to see if Saints coach Sean Payton pushes the envelope in the first game of the season, the night before this officiating summit in Texas. I hope Johnson assigns the most physically fit ump to that Thursday night game.)

For now, I can see some mayhem on the horizon. Indianapolis opens the season at Houston, and the Texans have the ability to play pinball football, scoring early and often. If the Colts find themselves down double-digits in the fourth quarter, I can see Manning wanting to go to a quick-snap set (he might want to in the middle of the second quarter; who knows?) and being frustrated by the pace of the officials.

Usually the NFL has a good officiating controversy two or three times a year. I don't remember one in August before.

Before I move on to the other news of the week, let's look at Manning's point about the Patriots game last year, to see if he's right.

I examined Manning's point about the big comeback last November to see about the quick no-huddle he ran. Let say, for the sake of argument, that the re-positioning of the umpire would have taken an additional five seconds per play, with the obvious proviso that on incomplete passes or on plays when the clock was stopped you wouldn't add the additional four seconds. Would the Colts have actually had enough time to rebound from a 31-14 deficit with 14 minutes to play to win? They had 16 plays. Eight of them were live-ball plays, with the clock running at the end. Considering that Manning bled the clock in the last drive of the game, inside the two-minute warning, it's a stretch to think that 40 seconds would have doomed the Colts that night ... though it's possible the Patriots, rested and able to react better to his fast-paced offense, would have made some defensive plays to stop the Colts on one of the three scoring drives.
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