The NFL has ramped up its policy on avoiding concussions, and the policy has not excluded the referees. With high speed collisions involving the umpire position, the NFL has permanently moved the umpire to the offensive backfield, nine years after a pilot program of the switch was tried in the 2001 preseason.
The most violent collision from the 2009 season didn’t even involve the umpire, but a back judge covering a kickoff return. Rich Reels was bruised up quite a bit and had to sit a week out when he was caught off balance and hit by an upfield blocker. In addition to Reels’ injury, there were reports of concussions and other injuries. The league even considered giving the umpire a helmet.
The umpire will now be located in the offensive backfield, rather than the center of the defensive backfield. The umpire will operate on the side opposite the referee, who is generally positioned on the side of the quarterback’s throwing arm. However, after the two minute warning in either half, the umpire will return to the defensive backfield.
There are no changes indicated in the 2010 NFL rule book under the umpire’s duties as a result of this change. (Oddly, the position of the umpire is not and never was discussed in the rule book, despite other officials’ positions being indicated.) However, there is a private manual for officials that express finer details of officiating mechanics which was overhauled.
The umpire will have to quickly set in position after maintaining the ball spot at the line of scrimmage. Once an offense comes to the line, the umpire must retreat to the offensive backfield (while avoiding the players moving from the huddle to the line of scrimmage) rather than a few yards behind the ball. Usually, the offense has to wait about a second for the umpire to be set, but it will likely take longer with the new positioning.
It will be interesting to see some of the bugs worked out in the preseason, and we will update you on any refinements as we are aware of them.