The NFL is looking to take a page from the playbook of one of its referees.
Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino is looking to run a trial of an eighth official as early as this preseason, according to Judy Battista of NFL Media. Referee Walt Anderson implemented an eighth official for the 2013 season in the Big 12 Conference, where Anderson is the coordinator of officials.
This new position — labeled “A” for alternate in the NCAA — has responsibility for spotting the ball and watching the interior line play. This alleviates some of the duties of the umpire due to overlapping responsibilities in high-pace offensive play. This official would set in the offensive backfield on the side of the quarterback’s throwing arm, but set closer to the sideline than the referee. Since alternate has specific meaning in the NFL, the league will probably have a more descriptive name, like center judge.
The extra official would not be on the field for the 2014 regular season under any circumstances, and would probably need a second trial in the 2015 preseason. This means that the earliest regular season action of the extra official would be no earlier than 2016.
During the 2013 offseason, Anderson explained the pressing need, saying, “What we’ve got to be sure is that officiating changes along with the game to be sure that it is administered fairly for both sides of the football.”
In addition, Anderson said the eighth official helps in “covering blind spots that the evolution of the game has created, because there are only seven of us and there are 22 players spread out all over the field.”
This does not appear to be reactionary on the NFL’s part to a coverage loss resulting from the umpire being repositioned in the offensive backfield in 2010. Notably, holding penalties did not trend downward with the move.
The NFL experimented with a deep judge for the eighth official in the 2010 and 2011 preseason. That trial was a reaction to the increasing use of four wide-receiver sets on pass-heavy offenses covered by three deep officials. The deep judge has not been used since. The NFL added the seventh official in 1978, the side judge, as a reaction to the transition to pass-dominant offenses.
If the NFL does a tryout of the 8-man system this preseason, it seems that Anderson’s “A” officials would be tapped for the trial. There likely would not be a full slate of 16 or 17 of these officials, but probably only four games, as was done for the 2010 deep judge position. (The 2011 preseason had 12 games with a deep judge.)
Because there are at least five new officials and one or two officials promoted to referee this season, the officiating department will probably avoid assigning the extra official where there are new crew members.
There doesn’t appear to be any formal vote planned by the Competition Committee, and it is unclear if there will be a vote of the ownership on the trial, if it is implemented in the 2014 preseason.
Anderson explains the 8th official in a Big 12 Conference video
Image: Big 12 Conference. Table source: Pro Football Reference. Accepted penalties only, and includes penalties on special teams or after a change of possession.