Football Zebras™

Umpire position incubator for future NFL crew chiefs?

White hat

We know the NFL officiating roster for 2014.  The names have been announced, but one position assignment caught my attention.  Brad Allen, a collegiate referee and who worked the 2013 NFL preseason as a back judge in the advanced training program, will work his rookie season as an umpire.  Could this be the new way the NFL prepares future referees?

The NFL hasn’t hired a referee straight out of college since the AFL-NFL merger.  Since the 1970 merger, the NFL has  broken in potential referees at the another position — any position other than umpire.  During the next 40 years, the umpire, usually an official with the build of a lineman, worked one of the most technical and dangerous positions on the field.  The umpire usually stayed in that position his whole career and never aspired to or was assigned the referee position.  In fact, I can never remember a NFL umpire being appointed a referee.  I can’t even remember an umpire substituting for a referee during an emergency.

Starting in 2010, the umpire was moved to the backfield for all but seven minutes of the game.  The umpire goes to his traditional position in the defensive backfield for the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half.  For the rest of the game, his position is in the offensive backfield, across from the referee.  From there he can still call fouls while watching the interior line, walk off penalties, mediate post-whistle disputes, and spot the ball.  Could this still relatively new positioning of the umpire be a new pathway to becoming a NFL referee?

CampbellAFL

Scott Campbell works the referee position in the Arena Football League

There is already a potential test case in the works in the NCAA and Arena Football League of an umpire trying out to be a referee.  Scott Campbell is a Big 12 umpire and an Arena Football League referee.  Campbell worked as an umpire in the AFL and asked his supervisor to switch to referee for the 2014 season.  “I wanted to switch to referee in the AFL to see if it was something I could handle and

I felt it was a perfect opportunity to see if I would like to be considered as a future NCAA referee,” Campbell said.  “The easiest part of the transition to AFL referee is having a strong crew.  The hardest part is the off-field administration paperwork that goes with being a referee.  In AFL, I have to book the hotel rooms, rent the cars, secure game tickets, file the foul reports, submit expense reports, send out weekly crew tests.  In the NCAA, those ‘chores’ are divided up.”

Campbell credits his Big 12 referee and his former AFL referee — Greg Burks and Shawn Hochuli –  for his development: watching them work games, asking questions, and attending Big 12 referee position clinic meetings to helping transition to referee.

“There are a lot of excellent referees in NCAA football — especially in the Big 12.  We have the best training. Period.  [Conference coordinator and NFL referee] Walt Anderson does an outstanding job with our staff and we have some of the best position trainers possible.”  

Several major college conferences are adding an eighth official this year, called the center judge.  He will line up in the offensive backfield with the umpire remaining in his traditional position.  The NFL will experiment with the center judge position in the preseason this year.  Campbell thinks if the eighth official catches on, it will be where future referees will be slotted once hired to major college conferences or the NFL.  “My guess is that the traditional umpire position is going away. And since the umpire is in the offensive backfield in the NFL, it makes sense to put potential referees there.  They are essentially getting the same look as the referee but in a mirror image, which is really no big deal as your keys are pretty much the same, except the umpire has center and guards.  Having the eighth official will help with coverages and substitutions and will free up the referee and umpire to actually be in position to officiate the snap.  The center judge position is a spot where potential future referees, in the NCAA, are being trained,” Campbell explained.

If the NFL and NCAA are using the umpire or center judge to help train future referees, I think it is a very interesting idea. As Campbell said, the umpire/center judge has a very similar view as the referee, works closely with him, has to know the penalty enforcements as well as the referee, and gets a great tutorial in the position.  In the NFL, the umpire will have to shift to the traditional defensive backfield for seven minutes during the most critical moments of the game.  That will be a steep learning curve for an official who does not have experience seeing the game from that angle. But, I think Brad Allen and future umpire-to-referee hires will have a great candidate’s seat to learn how to wear the white hat.

Images: eBay, Scott Campbell

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