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It can sure look like pure mayhem seeing National Football League games on television, with all the large men crowding the same confined space wearing dark and white jerseys ~ with zebra-striped shirts peppered in. The latter of course are the referees, and our readers often ask us how many there are, and what each does.
It takes 7 game officials to oversee National Football League contests: the Referee, Umpire, Down Judge, Line Judge, Field Judge, Side Judge, and Back Judge.
On television it may appear as if the so-called “zebras” are all over the field, making calls, setting the ball, jumping into scrums after fumbles, and throwing yellow flags. But watch a game in person, inside an NFL stadium, and you can wonder how only 7 officials can cover all that football field acreage.
How do they do it? Very, very carefully, with a lot of rules and assignments. Here’s a deep look at those 7 NFL game officials, where they position themselves, and their responsibilities.
Fans usually call every person in the zebra shirts a “referee,” but in reality all members of the crew are game officials. There is only a single Referee, with a white hat and capital R above his jersey number ~ and he is the person in charge of all those officiating the game.
The Referee begins each regular play 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage, on the right side of the offensive formation. On top of being in charge of everything related to all the game officials, this person is responsible for managing the game’s pace, and it is this person you see on television explaining penalties, or other game developments.
Among the Referee’s many responsibilities are counting offensive players every play; determining if a measurement is needed for a 1st down; watching for false starts by the quarterback and running backs, and a part of the formation for false starts; and focusing on the quarterback and action around that player.
Unlike all those umpires in baseball, in the NFL there is only 1 Umpire, who starts plays 15 yards back off the line of scrimmage, opposite the referee as explained above.
This game official is generally responsible for player equipment, and maintaining control of games by commingling with players out on the field.
This is the zebra seen walking off yards assessed for a penalty. Also, it is he or she who dive into piles of players scrambling for possession of fumbled balls.
The Umpire watches the left side of scrimmage, for false starts; and helps the referee watch action around the quarterback.
On each sideline straddling the line of scrimmage are a couple of officials who stare right down the tunnel of a yard’s space between the offensive and defensive teams before plays. Watching this line of scrimmage on 1 side is the Down Judge.
This referee manages the crew that moves the 10-yard chains for 1st downs. He or she monitors for offside or encroachment penalties, and informs the Referee of downs.
During action, the Down Judge makes rulings on sideline plays closest to him or her, such as calling when (or if) a ball-carrier steps out of bounds; or call pass interference, illegal contact, or defensive holding. This person determines forward progress on plays, vital to spotting the ball in this game of inches.
Opposite the Down Judge is the Line Judge, who also looks down the line of scrimmage. This official watches for offsides or encroachment penalties; and makes sideline rulings on his side of the field.
This official makes a lot of calls on whether or not ball carriers or receivers are out of bounds, or pass interference.
The Side Judge begins 25 yards downfield, away from the line of scrimmage, on the same side as the Down Judge. This person is the main keeper of game time.
He or she also watches the receivers close by for illegal use of hands or blocking, or for infractions by defensive backs. He or she makes sideline out-of-bounds calls, and informs the Referee when time expires ending each quarter.
Counterpart to the Side Judge is the Field Judge. However, this official begins only 20 yards off the line of scrimmage, on the defensive side, on the sideline side of the line judge. He or she focuses on the receiver who split off the ball furthest, for blocking fouls, illegal use of hands, and infractions by defensive backs. This judge makes out of bounds calls on that side.
This NFL ref starts 30 yards down the field, on the defensive side, in the middle like a deep center fielder in baseball. He or she manages the 25- or 40-second game clocks, and television breaks.
The type of play dictates what this ref does. On run plays, he or she focuses on the center and guards on either side of the center; and the line for holding by defensive players. As run plays develop this ref looks for holding by the offense.
On passes, this ref focuses on the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver. This ref also goes right away to where passes are thrown, and rules on catches. He or she also makes pass interference, holding, and illegal contact calls.
Special Teams Duties for NFL Refs
Each NFL ref also has defined places and duties on what are called Special Teams: kickoffs, field goals, point-after-touchdown attempts, and punts. Here’s an outline of these duties ~ which can be quite different than what you see on “regular” plays:
- The Referee begins at the goal line opposite the kicker on kickoffs, centered. On punts, field goals, or point-after-touchdown attempts, he or she watches the punter, or kicker and holder.
- The Umpire on kickoffs starts on a side making to ensure no kicking team player is offside upon the kick. On punts, this ref begins a few yards behind the punter and monitors play on the line. On field goals or PATs, he or she stands behind the holder, over to the right, and watches for infractions inside the defensive rush.
- The Down Judge on kickoffs starts on the receiver’s goal line, but on the sideline, and prior to action counts players on the field for that team. On punts he watches the line of scrimmage for offside and encroachment; and on the point kicks rules on false starts, offside, or encroachment at the line.
- The Line Judge is opposite on kickoffs, on the corner of the sideline and goal line. This official monitors the line of scrimmage for offside, encroachment, or false start infractions
- The Side Judge starts behind the kickoff returner, and ensures that team lines up legally. For punt plays, this official is 7 to 10 yards behind the punt returner, on the sideline, where he watches blocking. On kicks for points, he starts 7 yards off the line of scrimmage over the snapper and monitors for illegal blocks or snap infractions.
- The Field Judge then starts on the opposite side. For punts this ref rules on blocking, and for kicks lines up under a goal post to see whether field goals or extra point kicks are good.
- The Back Judge begins on the kicker’s restraining line, and ensures that team is correctly lined up, and that the kicking team does not go offside prior to the kick. For punt plays this official is 7 to 10 yards behind the punt receiver, right in the center of the field, where he waits for fair-catch calls. On points kicks he also lines up under a goal post to decide whether field goals and extra points count.
Unlike in baseball, where umpires rotate to serve in various positions (e.g. behind home plate, or behind 1st base), the way how NFL referees are assigned to games is dependent upon which position they have attained.
No NFL referee begins as a Referee or Umpire. They start at another position and work their way up, so to speak, to get to work behind the quarterback!.
Just like the players, all NFL game officials have a uniform number displayed largely on the back of their shirts. Since some of those numbers reach into 3 digits, meaning there are a lot of referees, there also is a simple way to see which ref is which.
On top of the large number on the back of their jersey will be a large block letter, or 2 or more of them. These stand for the position that the game official is serving in.
For example, the Referee has the capital letter R above his number. (The Referee also stands out because he or she also wears a white hat, compared with black hats of other crew members).
Question: Has there always been 7 game officials in the NFL?
Answer: No, the number of referees and their duties has grown along with the game since the league was formed in 1920 ~ when just 3 officials called games. There were 3 or 4 up to 1946; 5 from then until 1964; 6 to 1978; and 7 when the Side Judge was added to help out in the secondary when the game really turned to passing plays a lot more.
Q.: Isn’t there a referee up “in the booth” (usually called the press box)?
A.: Not an official game official. Indeed there is someone up there during games monitoring plays and managing replays. However, this person is not considered part of the game officiating crew.