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Fledgling football fans are bound to wonder just how many zebra-stripe-shirt referees are on the field during games. So we looked into it ~ there are 7 referees during National Football League games ~ and were intrigued about their titles and job duties.
The 7 officials in football are the referee, umpire, down judge, line judge, field judge, side judge, and back judge. These officials essentially encircle all players before each play, with a couple on each sideline, plus 2 behind the offensive backs, and another deep behind the safety on defense.
For fans trying to figure out who is who, all NFL referees have a jersey number just like the players. However, perhaps more tellingly, they also have capital letters indicating which referee is which.
For instance, for the referee ~ the big kahuna of an officiating crew ~ will wear the capital letter R. (Also, in the NFL, this referee wears a white hat, compared with the black hats of the other 6).
These game officials each have detailed roles working amongst each other, and very distinct responsibilities. Let’s take a peek.
It kind of makes sense that the NFL official in charge of all officiating and rulings is called the … referee. Look for the big R on this official’s jersey ~ or a white ball cap.
The referee starts plays 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, to the right side of the formation, basically straight back from where a tight end sets normally. He oversees anything related to all the officials, and manages the pace of games. This is the person you see on television verbally calling all penaltis, or explaining things like clock changes. The referee is the final judge in any debate.
Being crew chief does not mean the referee is exempt from other duties. To the contrary, the referee is responsible for crucial game-action officiating, including counting offensive players on field for every play; determining 1st downs or deciding if a measurement is needed; watching for false starts by the quarterback and running backs; watching an area of the formation for false starts; focusing on the quarterback and action around that player, making calls like roughing the passer, offensive holding, whether a play is a pass or fumble, and intentional grounding.
Not to be confused with the game officials in baseball, the football umpire starts in the backfield 15 yards off the line of scrimmage opposite the referee, on the left.
General responsibilities include reviews of player equipment, and maintaining control of games by conversing with players throughout play. This is the official you see walking off yards to assess penalties ~ and the brave soul who jumps into piles of players on fumbles to figure out who possesses the ball!
The umpire counts offensive players on the field for each play; monitors the left side of scrimmage for false starts; and assists the referee on action near the quarterback.
One of 2 referees who stand on the sideline straddling the line of scrimmage and staring straight down that tunnel, the down judge stares straight down the tunnel between the teams called the line of scrimmage.
This referee oversees that line, and directs the crew that sets and moves the chains for 1st downs. This official watches for offside and encroachment penalties (and has a great view to do so!). He also counts players on the field, and informs the referee of whatever is the down currently.
On plays, the down judge rules on sideline plays nearest him or her, including deciding when (or if) a runner steps out of bounds, and determining forward progress. On passing formations, this judge watches receivers on his side and rules on completions, and whether catches were made in bounds. These judges call pass interference, illegal contact, or defensive holding with eligible receivers.
This is the referee opposite the down judge, looking straight down the line of scrimmage. General responsibilities including watching for offside or encroachment;
This judge also is supposed to count offensive players on the field before plays begin. He makes rulings near the sideline on his side of the field, like whether or not a ball carrier is out of bounds, or pass interference rulings. Basically, similar to the down judge, just on the other side.
This ref starts 25 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage on the same side as the down judge. This is the primary keeper of time, if the game clock fails. He watches the receivers on his side for illegal use of hands, for blocking, or penalties on defensive backs.
This judge watches sidelines to make out-of-bounds calls, and lets the referee know when time runs out to end each quarter. Mainly this judge watches receivers on his side of the field, to ensure the players weren’t impeded illegally by defenders, and to make calls on pass completions.
This is the counterpart to the side judge, but only 20 yards off the line on the defensive side, on the sideline side of the line judge. This ref mainly focuses on the receiver who sets split off the ball the most, for blocking fouls, illegal use of hands, and infractions by defensive backs. This judge makes out of bounds calls on that side.
This is the centerfielder of the refs, starting 30 yards downfield on the defensive side right in the center. He or she manages the 40- or 25-second game clocks, as well as all television breaks.
On run plays, this judge focuses on the center and the guards on either side of the center, and the line for holding by defensive players. Later on runs plays this ref looks for holding by the offense. On passes, this ref focuses on the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver based on formation. This is the ref who immediately goes to where passes are thrown and rules on catches (or drops). He makes pass interference, holding, and illegal contact calls.
NFL Referees on Special Teams
The referees also have their own places on non-regular plays, like kickoffs, field goals, point-after-touchdown attempts, and punts, known as special teams. Here is a brief run-down of where they start, and main duties.
The referee starts at the goal line opposite the kicker on kickoffs, right in the middle. On punts, field goals, or point-after-touchdown attempts, his role is watching the punter, or kicker and holder.
The umpire starts kickoffs standing on a side making sure no one on the kicking team is offside before the kick. On punts he starts a few yards behind the punter and watches left-side line play. On field goals or PATs, he stands a bit behind the holder, to the right, and watches for infractions during the defensive rush.
On kickoffs, the down judge 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.
On the other sideline at the goal line during kickoffs is the line judge, who also counts players on the receiving team. This referee also watches the line of scrimmage for offside, encroachment, or false start infractions.
The side judge sets up behind the kickoff receiver and makes sure that team lines up per rules. On punts this ref is 7 to 10 yards behind the receiver, on the sideline, where he watches blocking. On the kicks for points, he starts 7 yards off the line of scrimmage over the snapper and monitors for illegal blocks or snap infractions.
On the opposite side is the field judge, who for punts rules on blocking, and on kicks lines up under a goal post to help make calls whether field goals or extra points are good.
The back judge starts on the kicker’s restraining line and makes sure that team is correctly lined up, and that the kicking team does not go offside before the kick. On punts this ref is 7 to 10 yards behind the punt receiver in the center of the field, where he makes calls on fair catches. On points kicks he also lines up under a goal post to decide whether field goals and extra points count.
The capital letter C is on the jerseys of the center judge in college football, where he starts near the referee in the offensive backfield, kind of equal to the umpire. This referee does the ball-spotting and penalty calling, and basically helps the referee and umpire.
The NFL does not use a center judge, although it experimented with it during preseason games in 2015. However, for those games this referee was positioned quite differently ~ 20 yards downfield (defensive side) off the line of scrimmage, where he watches the center and guards.
Professional leagues that have utilized the center judge include the Alliance of American Football (AAF) minor league, and the XFL in 2020.
Question: Who makes sure the quarterback was behind the line of scrimmage at the point where the ball is released on a pass?
Answer: Down or line judge, depending on which side of the field.
Q.: Why don’t they have a referee in the booth up in the stands?
A.: They do have an official up there in charge of video monitoring and replay, but he or she is not called a referee, but simply a game official.