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Can umpire make calls for referee?

Since the umpire is in the backfield, I wondered if the umpire is now permitted make calls that historically fall within the referee’s purview.



Former umpire Jim Daopoulos breaks down responsibilities

There was a play in the Texans-Patriots divisional playoff game that seemed curious to me.  Late in the second quarter referee Tony Corrente flagged the Texans for roughing the kicker.  Umpire Garth DeFelice consulted with Corrente, and the referee turned on his microphone and announced that there was no foul because the defender was blocked into the kicker.  Since DeFelice was with Corrente in the backfield, I wondered if the umpire is now permitted make calls that historically fall within the referee’s purview.

Umpire Garth DeFelice observing action earlier this season from the offensive backfield

Former NFL umpire and supervisor of officials — and current NBC Sports officiating expert — Jim Daopoulos says roughing/running into the kicker and roughing the passer are still the referee’s call all the way.  “He’s the only one who’s supposed to call it,” Daopoulos confirms.

Around 10 years ago the NFL experimented — on a trial basis — with putting the umpire in the backfield for punt plays.  On one punt, Daopoulos says umpire Bill Schuster threw a flag for roughing the punter right under referee Bernie Kukar’s nose.  Kukar went with the call, but the NFL officiating office the next week issued an edict that the referee and only the referee should throw the flag for roughing the kicker.  That still stands for umpires today.  Doupoulos says on a kicking play the umpire watches the line action and that line action can take his view back to the kicker.  The umpire can at times see if the defender was blocked into the punter and can consult with the referee.  “But it’s still the referee’s final decision,” Daopoulos adds, also confirming that DeFelice followed proper procedure in consulting with Corrente.

I also asked Daopoulos if the umpire can throw flags for roughing the passer or make pass/fumble rulings during a quarterback pass.  “That’s all the referee’s call.  The umpire has other responsibilities,” Daopoulos says. 

In 2010,

In 2010, the umpire position moved from behind the linebackers to the offensive backfield for most of the duration of the game.

While I had the Super Bowl XXXIII umpire on the line, I asked him about the umpire in the backfield change in positioning, now finishing its third year.  Daopoulos admits that he is “old school” in saying that he is against the move.  He adds that the NFL moving the umpire to the backfield for safety reasons is “window dressing” and that while many umpires got knocked down, there weren’t that many injuries to umpires that forced them to miss time.  Daopoulos says umpires who consistently got knocked down while in the traditional place “didn’t belong out there because they couldn’t move.”

Daopoulos further states that the umpire in the backfield is causing the officials to miss several defensive holding fouls, plus he asserts that there isn’t good coverage on passes over the middle when the receiver runs a hook-in pattern and there’s a tight sliding catch. He observes that the umpire moves back behind the defensive line during the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half, which seems to run contrary to the reason for the move.

“It’s a safety issue for 53 minutes then they move the umpire back.  How much sense is that?”

Images: Gavin Smith/Detroit Lions; Illustration/original photo by Pats1 at en.wikipedia.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"