The NFL is continuing its evaluation of an eighth officiating position in the second week of preseason, and there are indications that the permanent addition is on the horizon. The announcement for the eighth official was posted on the Football Operations website on Tuesday.
The position under trial is termed the “middle judge,” and provides support for the umpire from the defensive backfield. This position was evaluated last year under the term “center judge,” and the change in terminology seems to differentiate from the NCAA center judge, who has ball-spotting duties and is stationed in the offensive backfield. Referee Walt Anderson, who also is the officiating coordinator for the Big 12 Conference, introduced the center judge position in 2013.
In addition to a trial of the center/middle judge last preseason, the NFL also evaluated a U2, or second umpire, who also was in the offensive backfield, and keyed the center, a guard, and a tackle. The U2 position is no longer being evaluated. A trial of a deep judge was also conducted in the 2010 and 2011 preseasons to provide support in the defensive secondary.
All of the officials being evaluated in the development training program will be on the field this week, and will help accommodate the additional position either by working as middle judges or substituting for a veteran official who is a middle judge.
In the Football Operations announcement, senior vice president Dean Blandino said, “We are going to look at positioning the eighth official opposite the back judge. We want to try to fill some of the holes that may happen in specific situations over the course of a game.” This is a slightly reworded quote from last year’s announcement, so there is no new information that can be parsed from this. The mechanics of the position, as indicated in the league’s chart above, are as follows:
The middle judge starts 18–20 yards downfield, opposite the back judge; focuses on action around center and guards. Looks for defensive holding and offensive holding at the second level.
There are indications that the eighth official is soon to be a permanent fixture in the near future, with the earliest possible implementation being the 2017 season. However, there is an uptick in staffing this season with 5 swing officials who will float between crews. The league has had no more than 3 swing officials in any season, except in preparation for staffing needs around league expansions in 1995, 1999, and 2002. Two of those swing officials are umpires, a position with keys that include the keys of a middle judge. Additionally, the pool of development officials has increased from 21 to 29, which also has been seen in officiating circles as a harbinger of a staffing increase.
If such a move is made, it would likely come at the league’s fall meeting, as the officiating department will need to start making hiring decisions before the annual owners meeting in March.
Image: NFL handout graphic