Photo Credit: Bill Nichols

The semifinal game was sold out. Although the visitors were seeded lower, their playoff performance made them the favorite. The home team held its own in the first quarter, but the visitors established their dominance before halftime. By the time the game ended, the mercy rule was applied. Although the game had its ups and downs, the five-official crew did not. With three championship-caliber officials in the middle of the field, the crew worked well together. It operated as a symphony.

After each play, the referee dutifully hustled to the line of scrimmage, blew the ready-for-play and hustled back to his position almost directly behind the quarterback. The umpire, although he was perfectly healthy and mobile, never went beyond the hashmark, but he was always there waiting for the ball. After incomplete passes, he went immediately to the previous spot anxiously awaiting delivery of the ball. The back judge was the key to ball retrieval. After each play he sprinted to the ball, even though it might have been two yards from the umpire. He then turned his back to the players and dashed with amazing vigor to his new position.

Any of the spectators in the overflow crowd that paid attention to the officials had to be impressed. The harmonious action of the five men never faded.

Unfortunately, their mechanics went out of vogue many years ago. What we had were dinosaurs in action.

Let’s examine the ills of their perfunctory behavior and the preferred mechanics for the 21st century.


Whether the quarterback is right- or left-handed, a position between the tackles, even if 15 yards back, is not optimum in today’s game. The referee should at least be outside the tight end. That position allows him to be still a few seconds longer if the quarterback drops back to pass and/or rolls to his passing-arm side. The wide position also makes it easier to cover the sideline if the quarterback gets that far.

As with any mechanic, there is a drawback and the wide position places the referee at a disadvantage when the quarterback moves briskly to the opposite side. In that case, the referee must do his best to keep pace. There is no way the referee can cover the opposite sideline, so the extra distance he has to cover is not a serious disadvantage.

After the play ends, the referee should gently pinch in, keeping all 22 players in view. He must always know how many players are in the huddle, but that is mission impossible for every play. Nonetheless, the more he knows about the huddle, the less chance he has of missing a substitution infraction. If he runs up to the line after every play, he will unnecessarily lose track of the huddle.

If the ball is clearly beyond the line-to-gain, the line judge can indicate that to the referee, who can signal it from wherever he is. If the ball is clearly short of the stake, the line judge can indicate the number of the down.

If there is a big pile after a short gain, the referee must assist the umpire in helping the players get up. Players tend to use players beneath them as leverage when rising. Albeit they do that without ill intent, the guy on the bottom doesn’t see it that way. On quarterback sacks, the referee must promptly go to the quarterback.

The bottom line for referees is if they have business near the line, by all means they should go up there, but a perfunctorily journey after every play sacrifices knowledge of the huddle.

Euornithes Backus Judgus (an advanced flying bird).

Like the referee, the back judge has a prime responsibility for dead-ball officiating. After each play he should gently pinch in, keeping all 22 players in view. If opponents linger, he can move in promptly to address it. Running at full speed to get a ball that can more easily be retrieved by others virtually eliminates dead-ball officiating. One cannot see much when moving at a fast pace. Players can be encouraged to get the ball. If an incomplete pass ends up on the field and the players have ignored it, it makes sense for the back judge to go get it. Otherwise monitoring players is more important than chasing the ball. If a player ends up in the opposing bench, the back judge may enter the bench area if necessary while the wing holds the spot and watches from the sideline.

Umpira Stegosauria.

An active umpire can be a big asset to the crew. The umpire should routinely retrieve balls between the numbers and go to the sideline if necessary. That allows the wing official to hold the spot while observing the disengaging players.

Archaeopteryx (four-winged Microraptor).

In the dinosaur days, the accepted practice was for the wing officials to be on the field. It’s difficult to see the whole play when you are backpedaling for your life. Wings must be disciplined to stay off until the play ends.

There are two primary scenarios where a wing official who starts off the field can still become a target. The first is getting too far ahead of the runner. That works well until the ballcarrier is chased off the field and the official is in his path as well as that of the pursuers. The second scenario involves loose balls that appear to have been recovered. The official swoops in from the sideline to rule on the recovery only to discover the ball is still free and the players don’t mind going through a striped shirt to get the ball.

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