The late flag


The game of football is a violent sport. It is not a contact sport as such….it is a collision sport. For an average of 4 seconds on every play, men are colliding with all their strength and running at their peak speed into each other.

The average game has between 60 and 70 plays. In those plays, 11 actual minutes of play exist. In those 11 minutes, the violence the human body takes allows the average NFL player to last an average of 3.3 years!

Most of these collisions are legal, a small percentage are against the rules. The rules protect players and allow the game to be played fairly.

It seems that a penalty flag always changes the outcome of a game. That is not true of course, but the appearance of the penalty flag laying on the field always seems to be big.

Penalties have a direct effect on that play only. It is great for the team that isn’t penalized and it always gives them an option to accept the penalty and replay the down, or let the play stand. The team it is against is hurt in the opposite way: they lose the down and the yardage, or the play stands to their detriment.

The penalty flag that always draws the most ire and frustration is the so-called “Late Flag”. You hear about this all the time from game announcers, people in the stands, and talking heads who analyze the game afterwards.

For 27 years I stood on a football field and watched and listened to all of this unfold. I can just about assure you that at least once a game, a coach, assistant, player, chain crew member, parent or spectator would scream “C’MON MAN, THAT’S A LATE FLAG!”

I don’t think people realize several reasons that the flag was thrown “late”. These explanations may sound simple and you may think they are not true, but they are.

First, people must understand that all flags are “Late”! If you think about it, a penalty flag isn’t thrown UNTIL there is a penalty, or the appearance of one. Sometimes the flag is picked up because another official had a better view of the play.That does not mean the first official was wrong on purpose, or trying to hose a team.

Instant Replay has shown us that plays on T.V. shown from different angles, are not necessarily what we first saw from just that one angle, there are always different views that can change the play. The same with officials. That is why on some plays you will see another official run in and tell the referee or other official what HE saw differently. Nonetheless, the flag was thrown AFTER the penalty occurred, so all flags are “late”.

The reasons they are “late” are twofold; the official is thinking it over, or he can’t find the darn flag! As a young official many years ago, I was told by Bob Colbert, an official from the Big Ten; “LET THE MIND DIGEST WHAT THE EYES HAVE SEEN”.

That means by design, you should take an extra second or two to make sure YOU SAW WHAT YOU SAW! That is a great lesson that young officials need to learn; Make sure, before you penalize a team that you are sure of what you had.

I do remember a few officials who said they “weren’t sure” what they had! After hearing what they said, they were told to pick the flag up!

When I was officiating, I can’t remember one time that I didn’t wait that one second to make sure I had a penalty on what I saw.

In order to make sure of no conflicts, I would tell the person I flagged exactly what I saw. It was usually something like this; “54, I got you for holding, your hands were outside the tackles shoulders, and you had a hand full of jersey”. I don’t recall any player ever arguing with me, although I do remember a few who didn’t like it very much!

That precise explanation eliminated most all problems because the player knew that I saw the play for certain, and what his foul was.

Secondly, and the one that is the most embarrassing for officials, is sometimes you just can’t find your flag! This happens to all of us at one time or another. Most officials will tuck the flag in the front of their pants so the weight hangs outside, on one side or the other, some put it in their back pocket. Some officials put it in their front pocket and I have no Idea why. That seems awkward as heck to me.In most cases though, the official is making sure of what he or she saw.

Sometimes you grab for the flag and you just miss it. Sometimes too, you forget where you tucked it for a second, (left side, right side, in the back pocket, etc.) or in very rare cases, forget to throw it all together! (That did happen to me once. I couldn’t find my flag for few seconds……so I threw my hat! Yes, that was embarrassing! It was in my back pocket, and I never put it there before…..I still don’t know why I did!?))

Officials are human and we make mistakes. Trust me, those mistakes haunt us more than you can imagine. The “Late Flag” is not a thing with officials. They may seem late to the people watching, but as you can see, the official has seen the foul, and because of one of the reasons explained, that flag doesn’t go unacknowledged, it just takes a little longer sometimes to get the flag out.

So, the next time you watch a game, keep your eye on the officials, and see if you can tell if the official was “late” because he’s thinking about it to make sure, or he just can’t find the darn thing! Remember, they’re human too! That’s the way I see it from the sidelines!

By Michael Stegall

From the Sidelines

Contributing columnist Mike Stegall a 27 year former OHSAA high school football official and current Darke County Commissioner

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