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Trading stripes for stripes?


ORLANDO, Fla. Chris Crocker should be here.

Crocker, who looks to be the former long-time Bengals defensive back, isn't at the annual NFL meeting that gets underway informally Sunday. But as he mulls a post-career career as an NFL official, he's got a pretty good message as the owners, coaches and general managers huddle to set policy for the coming year.

"Common sense," Crocker says of his approach."If it wasn't obvious, I tend not to call it. If I see something that's kind of close, I tend to let it go. Be fair for both teams. It's not really about us. That's kind of the mindset I have when I go into a game. It's about the kids. Give both teams a fair shot. I'm not out there to be a showman throwing flags."

Crocker, two months removed from playing slot corner in an AFC wild card game at Paul Brown Stadium, lined up as a back judge and side judge earlier this month at the Football Officiating Academy Fast Track Clinic in Baltimore. After working a youth game and a semi-pro game, Crocker can see himself changing stripes for, well, stripes.

But maybe just not yet. Crocker commits a hold when talking about his future. As in his cards close to his vest. He was the only one of 15 players at the camp still active. He says he's "more apt," to keep playing than retire. That doesn't seem to be on the radar in Cincinnati. But the man who brought him off the couch three times to captain his secondary with the Bengals is the new head coach in Minnesota.

"We talk all the time. We're friends," Crocker says of his conversations with Mike Zimmer. "You haven't heard about me filing my (retirement) papers. I leave it up to you. We'll see what happens. Obviously, you'd like to work for somebody you know."

But Crocker, 34, knows time is running out. Not only for playing, but for officiating. As far as he knows, there are only two former NFL players officiating in the league. He'd have to go back to high school, as well as take a sojourn through the small colleges, to get back as a ref. He doesn't mind and he thinks you'll see more and more former players get into it.

"I think it's great for the game, the integrity, it's good for the league," Crocker says. "You can't really be taught to officiate. What these guys do is very hard. What's really hard is applying the rules of the game because the book is so thick and the rules are constantly changing. I think officiating is the same way as playing. If you want to do it, you have to work at it."

Crocker has embraced just about everything the NFL has made available to its players when it comes to offseason programs geared to future careers. He's been to the officiating camp twice and has also attended a broadcasting boot camp.

"Sure, I'd go into broadcasting if somebody is going to drop me in the booth with Jon Gruden," Crocker says. "Broadcasting isn't for everybody. I'm just going to take advantage of what the league is offering in all these programs. When that day comes, you hope you can find something that fits your interests."

For the moment, officiating is a strong interest. He got fired up working with Super Bowl XLVIII referee Terry McAulay, among others, ("It was a who's who of the guys you see every week") and asa veteran of 151 NFL games there may be no one more qualified to navigate what goes on in the back end of the defense. Crocker committed four penalties last season for 21 yards (10th most on the team), but he doesn't think the league's officiating is in crisis mode.

"We can look at how guys are graded, how they're held accountable. When you look at a whole season and how many they got right versus how many they got wrong, I think the state of officiating is very good," he says. "These guys get graded every week on every play. They're held accountable. There's not a lot of turnover rate in the NFL. That tells you the state of officiating is very good. I think there'll be a lot of turnover in the next few years just for the fact these guys are getting old. It's a good opportunity to get into officiating because of that."

Crocker does allow he thinks the rules are too one-sided for the offense, of course. But he also says the new safety rules that are coming into play, such as the lower tackling target areas to avoid head shots, are going to end up being good for the game. As well as accepted.

"We're not going to be around anymore to complain about it," Crocker says. "The kids coming in are going to be taught how to play with those rules. It's all about adapting and adjusting."

On the face of it, there won't be much to adjust to next season as ownership gets sets to pass some rules that won't be earth shaking. The biggest items up for vote this week are:

Enforcing defensive fouls behind the line of scrimmage at the previous spot and not where the play ended or where fouls are committed.

Allowing pass interference to be called at the line of scrimmage. Until now, penalties not more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage aren't pass interference but can be called as defensive holding. (This appears to be a reaction to the offense's success at running pick routes and screens.)

Prohibiting blockers from rolling up on the side of the legs of defenders. Currently, it's only illegal to roll up on the back of legs.

The most celebrated officiating topic of this meeting won't even be voted on. Using the N word isn't going to officially draw a flag, but the use of racial slurs is going to be hammered at this meeting and beyond as a major point of emphasis as the league cites the taunting rule that is already on the books.

"Don't get me wrong. I don't like the (N) word. It shouldn't be used in any facet of the game. But guys use it," Crocker says. "It can't be just one word. There has to be a book full of words and I think it gets to a point where guys are going to be worried about that stuff when they're supposed to be officiating the play and not worried about what people say. I'm not saying the word shouldn't be penalized. But there are a million words that should be penalized. I just think they're going to open up themselves to a can of worms when they should be officiating the game."

Playing? Reffing? You can't tell what's next because Crocker is going to use the same common sense no matter what.

"There's a human element in officiating, but there has to be common sense," Crocker says. "They don't have an agenda against one team or coach. They want to keep their jobs. The biggest issue is grading, keeping everything uniform and making sure guys are held accountable."


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