What happens when the referee gets injured during a game? Fans will see that play out in many of the final preseason games, but, thankfully, not due to injuries.
Crews will deliberately switch to 6-person mechanics for a portion of the fourth quarter of the Week 4 preseason games. Most of the crews did this for a portion of the first preseason game this year, as we noted. Various configurations were tried by the crews, based on a missing official other than the referee; this time, however, the referee position will be the one vacated.
Crews are experimenting with different configurations of 6-person mechanics in case of injury during reg season game pic.twitter.com/uvRrgyFJ8Z
— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) August 12, 2016
During the postseason, there are three alternate officials assigned to each game, and five to the Super Bowl. There are no alternates assigned to the regular season games, so crews must play short in case of an injury. Each crew has its own plan on how to handle vacancies at each position, which depends on the strengths of the remaining crew members. The most typical 6-person formation is to leave the back judge position empty, and fill the vacant position with the back judge directly or as part of shifting two positions. Other crews might leave a field judge or side judge open, with the back judge and the line-of-scrimmage official taking on the extra burden; in some cases, the line judge is vacant, relying heavier on the side judge and head linesman. Because of chain duties for the head linesman and the ball-spotting duties for the umpire, these positions are not recommended to be vacant. Similarly, someone has to be in the referee position.
As I noted in So You Think You Know Football, Bernie Kukar was injured in 2003 when a blocked punt put him in the middle of the action. The crew’s plan arranged in advance was that the field judge would become referee.
The field judge was a rookie official named Gene Steratore who would ascend to the referee position permanently three years later. Kukar handed his white hat to Steratore, but Steratore initially declined. Perhaps fueled by the pain from his injury, Kukar insisted with a sharp-tongued response. Steratore obliged.
In an article in Referee magazine some years later, Steratore admitted his reservation to wear the white hat was out of respect for the man who would continue to be their crew chief, albeit from the locker room. “For me, that was sacred ground,” Steratore said, referring to the symbolism of the white hat.
For the preseason formation practice, the crew’s designated adjunct white hat will take over in the fourth quarter, generally at the start of a new possession. This may be for the duration of the fourth quarter or only a few series. The three crews that have officials trying out to be a future white hat are likely not involved in this trial. In Wednesday’s rescheduled game in Tampa, field judge Steve Zimmer took over for referee Craig Wrolstad, with the field judge position being left vacant.