K Ke ey ys s f fo or r t th he e P Pa as ss si in ng g G Ga am me e

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© 2004


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Introduction

When officials talk about keys
in the passing game, the phrase “the back
judge keys on the tight end” inevitably comes
up. You hear it spoken as if it’s an inviolable
rule. Is it always true? And why is it that any
discussion of p
assing game keys always
seems to begin and, even more curiously, end
with the back judge? Let’s start at the
beginning.

Keys should be established using a
systematic and fundamental framework for
assigning officials to eligible receivers at the
snap. This
assignment is meant to increase the
likelihood that any questionable acts by or
against eligible receivers are observed and
evaluated so that neither team gains an unfair
advantage not intended by the rules.

These keys are initially established pre
-
snap.
They are solely a function of the
offensive formation including any pre
-
snap
movement. They are ultimately determined at
the snap so that shifts and motion may be
dynamically changing our keys up until the
moment of the snap. These keys continue in
force u
ntil eligible receivers have passed the
first line of defense or until it is clear that no
downfield pass is intended.

A smooth transition from pre
-
snap keys
to downfield coverage is necessary once the
eligible receivers clear the first line of defense
and

it becomes apparent that the offense
intends to pass the ball downfield. Once these
two things happen, each covering official will
need to reorient himself and refocus on new
responsibilities.

A “systematic” means of assigning pre
-
snap keys implies that t
here is a set of
underlying rules or guidelines that ensures
that each official on the crew knows exactly
what his responsibility is, knows the
responsibilities of his crewmates, and
guarantees that no two officials are watching
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A Systematic Approach

Bob Masucci

New Jersey Football Officials Association

North Jersey Chapter

Why does discussion of keys for
the passing game always seem
to begin and end with the back
judge? This article takes a hard
look at the t
opic and discusses
the responsibilities of
all

officials for five, six, or seven
-
man crews.

This work represents the opinions of the author and possibly others. The principles expressed have been arrived at through ye
ars of experience and interviews
with
other officials at all levels of football. They represent how the rules of football are applied at various levels and in vari
ous regions. Each reader must filter
this work through his own philosophy and through the standards established by his own local as
sociations and/or conferences. Likewise, it is intended to assist
officials in the proper application of NF/NCAA football rules and techniques. It is not the definitive word. Should any infor
mation included herein be in conflict
with any National Federatio
n publication or any NCAA publication, those documents shall prevail.





© 2004


All rights reserved


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2

the same action while other

player
interactions proceed unobserved.

There is no perfect system of keys, and
the effectiveness of any particular system is
almost always a function of the number of
officials on the crew. A four
-
man crew will
have a very simple system of keys, but wil
l in
the long run need to accept compromises and
sacrifice complete coverage for this
simplicity. At the other extreme is the seven
-
man game where any system of keys will
usually be designed so that the back judge,
side judge, field judge, head linesman, a
nd
line judge are each keying one of the five
eligible receivers. However, such a system is
significantly more complex with several “if
-
then” considerations.

In this article, we will present one system
that has been shown to be effective for the
five, six,

and seven
-
man games. It is by no
means the only system nor is it the definitive
be
-
all, end
-
all system. It is just one system
that appears to have passed the test of time
and offers some measure of validation. If you
use a system that is different from th
is one,
you will inevitably find any differences to be
fairly minor.

Finally, it concludes with several
diagrams showing how the system works
within a five
-
man crew of officials for various
offensive formations.


DEFINITIONS
Any system of guidelines
or r
ules is predicated on a set of accepted
definitions. In order to properly understand
this system, the following definitions are
assumed:



Strength of formation



The strength
of an offensive formation is
determined solely by the number of
eligible receivers

outside the tackles
on each side of the formation. Simply,
‘strength’ is declared to the side of the
formation with the greater number of
eligibles outside the tackle. This
definition ignores the number of
linemen on each side of the snapper.
Therefore, a
n unbalanced line has no
effect in determining the strength of
the formation for the purpose of
assigning keys. Any formation that
has an equal number of eligibles
outside the tackles is said to be
Balanced
. For convention’s sake,
strength is declared to t
he LJ’s side of
the field when the formation is
balanced.



Tight end



the eligible player on the
end of the offensive line not more than
4 yards from the nearest offensive
lineman. If his split from the nearest
offensive lineman is more than 4
yards, we wi
ll refer to him as a
Split
end
. [Note: This distinction between
tight end and split end is made solely
for the purpose of visualizing a
formation. It is immaterial for the
purposes of assigning keys.]



Slot Back / Wing Back



A back
lined up no more than 4
yards outside
the offensive tackle. If his split is
greater than 4 yards, we will refer to
him as a
Flanker
. As above, this
distinction means nothing for the
purposes of assigning keys.



Back in the backfield



Any player in
the backfield between the tackle
s at
the snap.



Trips



an offensive formation that
has three or more eligible receivers on
one side of the formation outside the
offensive tackle.



Tandem


A formation where eligible
receivers are stacked one behind the
other.



Deep Officials



the sideline

officials
who are downfield at the snap in 6
-
man or 7
-
man games, i.e. the side



© 2004


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3

judge and the field judge. This term
has no meaning in 4
-

or 5
-
man crews.



Back Judge



the official positioned
in “center field” in 5
-

or 7
-
man games.
There is no back judge is

6
-
man
games.



Wing Officials



those officials
positioned on the line of scrimmage,
i.e. the head linesman and the line
judge.


GENERAL RULES FOR PRE
-
SNAP
KEYS


The following general rules govern the
assignment of pre
-
snap keys:

1.

As a general rule, in deter
mining pre
-
snap
keys, it does not matter whether an
eligible receiver is on or off the line of
scrimmage. All that matters is where each
receiver is laterally on the field relative to
other receivers.

2.

The priority for assigning pre
-
snap keys is
as follows:

a)

Deep officials (ignore for 4
-

or 5
-
man
games)

b)

Back Judge (ignore for 4
-

or 6
-
man
games)

c)

Wing Officials

This means that the deep officials are first
to select their keys, followed by the back
judge. Only afterwards do the wing
officials select their keys.

3.

No official should key the same receiver
as an official ahead of him in the priority
scheme. For example, the back judge
should not key on the same player as one
of the deep officials (7
-
man game); the
wing officials should not key on the same
receiver as
the back judge (5
-
or 7
-
man
game) or the deep officials (6
-
, or 7
-
man
game).

4.

By convention, if eligible receivers are in
tandem, the one nearest to the line of
scrimmage is considered to be the widest.

5.

In a 5
-

or 7
-
man game, if there is a
balanced formatio
n, the back judge should
declare strength to the line judge’s side of
the field.

6.

Any formation that is extremely unusual
or new requires that the crew of officials
verbally or visually communicate and
confirm keys with each other.



SPECIFIC RULES FOR INIT
IAL KEYS


4
-
man game



As mentioned earlier, the 4
-
man game has a very simple framework for
assigning keys, but as a result of that
simplicity, each official has a wider scope of
responsibility that will probably compromise
the overall effectiveness of the

system. The
fewer the number of officials on the crew, the
greater the sacrifices in coverage we’re forced
to accept.

1.

The wing officials must key all eligible
receivers on their side of the field.

2.

When there is more than one eligible
receiver on a partic
ular side, the wing’s
primary key will be the receiver on the
line (tight end or split end). Any slot back,
flanker, or motion man becomes a
secondary key.


5
-
man game

1.

Except for a trips formation, the back
judge always keys on the inside eligible
receive
r on the strength side of the
formation. In most cases this will be a
tight end or a slot/wing back.

2.

The wing officials will always key on the
widest eligible receiver in the offensive
formation on their side of the field unless
the back judge is keying on

him. This will



© 2004


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4

normally be a split end or a flanker, but
could be a tight end in some formations.

3.

If the formation is balanced and there is
only one eligible receiver to each side
(e.g. a “full house,” “Power
-
I,” or “wish
-
bone”), the back judge takes the
eligible
receiver on the line judge’s side of the
field. The LJ takes the first back out of the
backfield to his/her side of the field.

4.

For trips, the back judge keys the two
outside receivers to the trips side of the
formation. The wing man on that side
l
ooks through to the inside receiver. It’s
not unusual for this inside receiver to stay
home and block, so it is much more
natural for the wing to key this receiver.

5.

A player who goes in motion may or may
not change the strength of the formation.
That in tu
rn may require the back judge to
follow his key to the opposite side of the
field, or it may require him and the
strength
-
side wing to re
-
key as necessary.
Regardless, when motion occurs, all
officials will need to be alert to the
formation as it exists at

the snap.
However, if any motion serves to balance
the strength of the formation, the original
strong side remains the strong side.

6
-
man game

1.

The deep officials (FJ & SJ) always key
on the widest eligible on their side of the
formation.

2.

The wing offici
als always key on the most
inside eligible outside the tackle on their
side of the formation (normally a tight end
or a slot back). A running back coming
out of the backfield to the wing’s side
becomes a secondary key.

3.

For trips, the strong side deep offic
ial
takes the third (middle) receiver if he lines
up near the widest eligible; otherwise the
third receiver becomes the responsibility
of the wing official. A discrete signal
between the deep official and the wing
should be used to ensure proper and well
-
u
nderstood coverage of this third receiver.

4.

If there is motion, keys are determined by
the
position

of the motion man at the snap


not by his
direction
. If he is the widest
player, he becomes the responsibility of
the deep official; otherwise the wing
offi
cial keys him.

Note: When responsibility for coverage of the
goal line transitions from the deep officials to
the wing officials, it’s a fairly standard
practice to swap initial keys as well.


7
-
man game

1.

The deep officials (FJ & SJ) always key
on the wides
t eligible on their side of the
formation.

2.

The back judge normally takes the most
inside eligible receiver positioned outside
the tackle on the strong side of the
formation. Again, this will probably be a
tight end or a slot back. If the formation is
bala
nced, the back judge takes the first
back out of the backfield. If there is a
back in motion, the back judge always
keys on him after the snap. This could
result in the need for other officials to
recount the eligibles on their side of the
formation and ad
just their keys
accordingly.

3.

The wing officials key on the second
eligible receiver on their side of the
formation. Since that receiver would
never be the widest receiver, the only
concern is not to double
-
cover the back
judge’s key. Normal coverage theref
ore is
the nearest back in the backfield. A wing
official would only key the tight end if
there were two in the formation in which
the back judge would take one and the
wing official would key the other.





© 2004


All rights reserved


page
5

IN CLOSING

No system of keys is
infallible, and n
o system can guarantee
complete coverage of all receivers regardless
of formation. However, any system can be
made into a workable program provided all
officials subscribe to it and demonstrate full
understanding of the system. Like all other
elements of o
fficiating, practice and game
experience are crucial to proper execution.
And, as you might expect, communication is
the one critical success criterion in any system
of passing game keys. If you currently use no
formal system for assigning keys, give this
one a try at your next scrimmage. See if it
works for you. But by all means, don’t let the
discussion of keys end with the back judge!







© 2004


All rights reserved


page
6

ADDENDUM

Common Formations & Key Assignments
(Five
-
man Crew)


Figure 1


Pro Set

Strong formation to HL's side. BJ k
eys
tight end on that side. HL keys wide
receiver. LJ keys split end on his side of
the field.



2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
R
L
B
U
H



© 2004


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7

Figure 2


Slot Formation


Strong formation to LJ's side. BJ keys
slot. LJ keys the split end. HL keys the
lone receiver (split end) on his side of the
field
.




Figure 3


Full House, Wishbone, Power
-
I



Balanced tight formation. All backs
between the tackles. HL keys his tight
end; BJ keys TE on strength side of
formation. LJ keys first back out of the
backfield to his side.

Figure 4


Single Wing


Very si
milar to Slot Formation. Strong
formation to LJ's side. BJ keys slot. LJ
keys split end. HL keys tight end.








Figure 5


Spread Formation




Formation is balanced. Strength is
declared to LJ's side of the field. HL must
key both receivers on his sid
e of the field.

2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
B
L
H
R
U

2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
R
H
U
L
B
2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
L
U
B
H
R
2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
B
R
U
L
H



© 2004


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8

Figure 6


Double Wing


Balanced strength. BJ keys on tight end
on LJ's side. LJ keys wing to that side. HL
keys on other tight end and wing to his
side.






Figure 7


Trips


Strength is to HL's side of the field. BJ
keys two outside r
eceivers. HL looks past
them to the inside receiver. LJ keys the
lone receiver on his side of the formation.

Figure 8


Motion that changes strength


Strength is initially to LJ's side of the field.
LJ keys on split end. HL has split end on
his side of th
e field. BJ keys on slot back
and stays with him as he changes sides
of the formation.




Figure 9


Motion that doesn’t change
strength


Strength to LJ's side. LJ keys the split
end on his side; likewise for HL. Motion
by I
-
back does not change strength
. BJ
initially keys slot. Motion causes this
formation to effectively become trips at
the snap. BJ and LJ re
-
key so that BJ
takes the WR and the motion man and LJ
looks inside for the slot.


2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
L
H
B
U
R

2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
L
B
H
U
R

2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
H
R
L
B
U

2 0
3 0
1 0
E N D Z O N E
3 0
2 0
1 0
H
L
R
U
B



© 2004


All rights reserved


page
9

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bob Masucci is an information technology
contr
acts manager at AT&T in Piscataway, NJ. Residing in Clinton
Township, NJ, Bob is a 25
-
year
football official. During those years,
he has officiated in 24 state
playoff games, including 11 state
finals. As an active member of the
North Jersey chapter of th
e New
Jersey Football Officials
Association, he has participated in
the training and mentoring of new
officials and has independently
developed
a wide array training
materials.





© 2004


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