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NFL officials have thin regular-season bench



Back judge Terrence Miles [Carolina Panthers photo]

Swing officials, double-booking and bye weekends fill any gaps

The first weekend of NFL games featured a serious injury to one of the officials, when line judge Gary Arthur was hit from behind and suffered a broken collar bone, nine broken ribs, and a partially collapsed lung. It was one of the most serious set of injuries a NFL official has ever received on the field. Arthur will miss an extended period of time as he heals, and we wish him the best for a speedy and complete recovery.

Arthur’s injury caused many to ask how the NFL substitutes for injuries, the role of swing officials and what to do when the roster dips below a full compliment.

No regular season alternates

The NFL does not assign alternate officials to regular season games. The league would have to hire at least 16 additional officials — one for every game.

If an official is injured during the game and has to leave, the crew continues with six-man mechanics. Usually the back judge position is sacrificed; however when Arthur left the game on Sunday, everyone stayed put and the crew continued without a line judge.

The subject of having alternate officials available for every game is certainly a topic that can be debated.

Swing officials

At times the NFL hires more officials at one position than there are crews. This happens when the NFL wants to get an official in full-time, but there are no openings at his most proficient position. The league office will assign a veteran official as a “swing” official. This means the swing official rotates each week from crew to crew while the new hire has a full time crew. The veteran has enough experience to be able to cope with a new crew every week, while the NFL wants the rookie official to have stability.

Being assigned as a swing official is not a demotion. Head linesman Dana McKenzie, whose last game other than preseason was the Super Bowl, is a swing official this year, and will likely directly substitute for Arthur or be part of a two-part move to fill Arthur’s position.

Also, if an official is injured or ill and not able to start the regular season, the NFL will list him or her as a swing official. When the official is ready to return to the field, he or she will rotate among crews week to week. Buddy Horton injured his ankle during the preseason clinic this summer. He is listed as a swing official and if he recovers before the end of the season, he will rotate among crews.

Creative scheduling

If there is a dearth of officials at a particular position the NFL will take advantage of Thursday, Sunday and Monday games and bye weeks. If an official has a bye week, he will fill on on a crew with the shortage. If there are no bye weeks and a shortage of wpid-img_20141114_011543.jpgofficials, an official working the Thursday night game will sub on the Sunday or Monday game, or vice versa. 

If things are really tight, the NFL may assign an official out of position, as was described in the new book So You Think You Know Football? by Football Zebras editor Ben Austro:

On November 8, 2014, side judge Jeff Lamberth checked into an emergency room in Green Bay with severe stomach pains a day before his assigned Bears–Packers game on Sunday night. Lamberth made a full recovery and returned to the field just a few weeks later. However, at the time, the NFL had to make a decision about the crew for the game …

On the day Lamberth got sick, there was little time to get a substitute flown in to Green Bay—a city known for its football, but not for its abundance of direct flights. Umpire Tony Michalek was just a car drive away from Green Bay and was available, but Lamberth was a side judge that season. Since Michalek was also a line judge when working in college games, he worked as line judge in the Sunday night game and the originally scheduled line judge moved out to side judge.

Scheduling can get tight in Week 17, because every team plays on Sunday and there is only one crew that has the week off. In 2011 field judge Terry Brown worked the season finale at the umpire position because two umpires were sidelined, and only one umpire was available.

No advanced training officials

The members of the Advanced Training Program have all returned to their college conferences and have a full schedule of NCAA games to officiate. As part of the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Referees Association, the NFL cannot hire a member of the advanced training program in the middle of the season — even on a temporary basis for one or two games.

Enough officials for now

With three swing officials, crews having bye weeks, and the schedule spread over three days, the NFL is able to cover Arthur’s absence. The NFL will go to great lengths to make sure each game has seven officials on the field.

Cover Photo: Back judge Terrance Miles gets jostled during a scrum last year. Fortunately, Miles stayed in the game. (Carolina Panthers photo)

Above: Umpire Tony Michalek was pressed into service as a line judge last year as an emergency substitute (Screen grab from NBC Sports).

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?"