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Among the many “gee whiz?” aspects that new fans may notice while watching National Football League games, the numbers on the back of referees’ jerseys must be near the top of the list. What, do they think they’re stars on the field, too?
NFL referees wear numbers to make it easier for everyone to identify them during games. Numbering for referees began long ago, in 1941. How they are numbered has changed a few times, but when television became so important to the game, so too did the importance of identifying each referee.
Casual fans may think it silly to make it easier for people to find the refs, since they always wear zebra-like black-and-white striped shirts and white baseball pants, contrasted with all the colors of players’ uniforms.
However, remember just how many people are on a football field during play: 28. With 11 players on the field for each team, plus 7 on-field refs, a lot of visual mayhem happens and the league wanted to help everyone (coaches primarily) to easily identify which ref is responsible for each call.
As of 2022, NFL referees have a number between 1 and 135 (except No. 13, which has been eliminated for its association with bad luck). It was not always this way. The current system was established when the league added new teams with expansion in the mid-1990s.
For a very long time, the maximum number of officiating professionals in the NFL was 120. That changed to 135 with the addition of new teams and more games.
You can actually see referee uniform numbers higher than 135. Those in training, in what is called the NFL’s Officiating Development Program, wear numbers from 136 to 177. If they are hired, they will be assigned a number available between 1 and 135.
By the 1970s, the number of referees needed on field during games reached a point where the NFL finally had to start using 3-digit numbers, e.g. 100, 101. By later in that decade, the league did not like the look of those huge numbers on refs’ backs, so they tried a new system.
Starting in 1979, the NFL chose to issue numbers to referees by their position, instead of by the person. The league started by numbering each ref from No. 3 to 20 (except 13), but by each position.
So there was a No. 7 Umpire, and a No. 7 head linesman. In reality, multiple No. 7s. And so on.
At this time the NFL also added the position name to the back of refs’ jerseys, where last names would go for the players.
A bigger change for 1979 was triggered by television producers. By this time, the NFL was big business, and TV broadcasts were a major reason, so producers generally got what they wanted.
Until the end of the 1978 season, all NFL refs wore white hats. However, college referees wore different-colored hats depending on their position, and TV producers requested the same in the NFL so they could more easily scan the crowded field and aim the camera at the ref who would make the penalty announcements.
Starting in 1979, the referee started wearing a black hat, while all other refs wore white hats. (that flipped in 1988, with the referee in white hat and the remaining crew in black hats, once again to emulate college football game officials).
First off, with the 1979 referee numbering change, established refs with numbers higher than 20 were forced to switch. Believe it or not, NFL referees put a lot of pride into the number they wear on the field ~ in fact, some spend their entire career being called that number (as in, “Hey 9!”) by players and coaches.
Fans also began to identify refs (whether because they were good, or bad) by the number, as in, “That 34 guy did it again!”
Aside from forcing some veteran refs to switch numbers, the biggest problem occurred during the playoffs when “all-star” referees were rewarded for being among the best, by being chosen to do the prestigious (and well-watched) playoffs.
For example, in Super Bowl XIV, a couple of referees wore No. 7. For that game, the officials each wore different-colored hats, so everyone could tell them apart.
However, for the next Super Bowl, there were 4 No. 7s, and all donned white hats. The league had to issue special numbers for 3 of them just for the championship game. (The most-senior ref got to keep No. 7).
The NFL stuck with this numbering system through 1981, but by growing the pool of numbers from 3 to 25. They also put in place a system where new refs were assigned a higher number, e.g. 20 or higher.
Still, sometimes refs get switched to a new crew, and the same problems that surfaced during the Super Bowls now troubled regular season crews.
Of course the 1981 playoffs saw the same problems as the seasons before, and by the end of 1981 the NFL dropped the referee numbers-by-position experiment.
Few new football fans are aware that NFL judges each serve a single “position.” This is unlike baseball where umpires travel in teams of 4 or more, and rotate assignments so no single ump is in the same spot for multiple games.
Football referees have very distinct areas and responsibilities. They generally have more territory to oversee than umps in other sports ~ plus more players, and often bunched up at that.
In fact, not all are called “referees.” In the NFL, there is only 1 referee on the field at any time. There also is an umpire, and other “officials” who fill various positions. A rundown:
As noted above, there’s only a single Referee on the field ~ and he is the final judge of anything that happens on the field. He is responsible for the official score, the clocks (play and game), rulings on what down it is, spots of the ball. The referee positions himself behind the offense, a little off to the quarterback’s throwing side. They can be recognized by their white hat ~ or as the sole official who is seen announcing or explaining calls to teams and audience.
C’mon, Blue! The Umpire in football is much, much different than those of baseball. The NFL’s umpires start by ensuring all players, their uniforms, and equipment meet league rules. During play, he or she gets to spot and then assess penalties for infractions along the line of scrimmage, like holding, or illegal blocks. (Umpires cause a lot of cussing by watching fans). The Umpire used to stand behind the linebackers, but kept getting clobbered during play so they moved the position to behind the offensive backfield.
The Head Linesman begins each play standing at the visitor’s end of the line of scrimmage, where he looks straight down that open avenue. There he can more easily carry out his primary responsibility for offsides, encroachment, false start, and other penalties that occur there. Once plays progress, he then is responsible for plays ending near or on that same sideline. This referee is the person in charge of the “chain gang” of personnel who carry the big dorky chain clamp that marks where a 1st down begins, with a 10-yard-long chain connected to help determine if 1st downs were achieved.
On the other side of the field, on the home team’s sideline, is the Line Judge. This referee is just like the Head Linesman, peeking down the line of scrimmage from the other side, looking for neutral zone, pre-snap, or alignment penalties. The Line Judge is responsible for plays on or near his sideline, within 5 to 7 yards of the line of scrimmage. In a rather strange assignment, this referee is responsible for keeping manual game time, in case the scoreboard malfunctions.
The Field Judge stands on the home sideline like his or her counterpart, the Line Judge ~ only 20 yards deep away from the line of scrimmage. This referee’s job includes counting all defensive players at the snap to ensure there are 11 or less. This ref also watches all eligible receivers on that side of the field, ultimately making rulings on whether passes were complete or incomplete. He or she also calls downfield penalties like pass interference (so this ref causes a lot of cussing, too).
The Field Judge couples with the Back Judge to signal when field goals are good, or failed. That’s why you see 2 refs run forward after the ball passes the goalposts, either with hands up, or wiping back and forth across each other.
The Side Judge carries the same responsibilities as Field Judge, only on the other (visitor’s) side of the field. Starting 20 yards downfield on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, this ref makes rulings on plays downfield like pass completions, fouls (e.g. pass interference) out-of-bounds calls, or, spotting the ball once play halts. During field goal tries this ref sets up parallel to the Umpire, supporting the Umpire.
The main job of the Back Judge is to monitor all kicks from scrimmage, including rulings on field goal attempts. This ref is responsible for timing breaks, intermissions between quarters and halftime, and informing teams when these breaks are ending. In play, the Back Judge starts deep downfield, past all the defensive secondary. His or her responsibilities there are similar to those of the field and side judges, making way downfield calls too far from other officials.
At the beginning of the referee numbering system in the 1940s, game officials were teamed by positions, which dictated which range of numbers they would wear. For instance, referees got single-digit numbers (0-9), the teens were all umpires, etc. (Back then there were only 4 officials per game crew, and there never was a need for more than 5 crews for a season).
Introduction of the back judge in 1947 bumped uniform numbers into the 40s. However, starting in 1951, new officials were no longer assigned numbers by position.
When the NFL and original American Football League merged in 1970, officials wore numbers as high as 89. When the NFL expanded to 28 clubs in 1976, the triple-digit numbers began to surface.
Referees in the NFL can request a number when it’s available. If more than 1 asks for the same number, the referee with the most tenure, e.g. games refereed, gets priority. If a dispute continues, the league could assign a ref a number.