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Alternate officials, like playoffs, have expanded over time

There are three to five alternate officials assigned and ready to go into a playoff game should an on-field official get hurt or sick.



They’re happy but not satisfied. They’d rather be on the field, but don’t want the circumstances happen that put them on the field. Who are they? The alternates. They are the three to five people assigned, ready to go into a playoff game should an on-field official get hurt or sick.

Alternates are never used during the regular season — only in post-season. If an official has to leave a regular season game, the crew goes to six-man mechanics and covers the game with one less official.

Armen Terzian knocked out after being hit by a bottle thrown from the stands.

It is rare for alternates to get into a playoff game; an alternate has never taken the field in the Super Bowl. The last time an alternate got into a playoff game was in the 2007 Washington-Seattle wild card game.

There have been two high-profile alternate situations over the years. Sadly, one happened in 1975 when a fan in Minnesota threw a whisky bottle and hit field judge Armen Terzian, shortly after the Dallas Cowboys completed the original Hail Mary (video).

Another high profile alternate situation happened in 1987 AFC Championship game. Field judge Dick Dolack had to leave the game with a leg injury. Referee Jerry Seeman was one of the two alternates for the game and came in for Dolack. Seeman was the official who ruled Denver recovered The Fumble sending the Broncos on to Super Bowl XXII (video).

That championship game was one of the reasons the NFL eventually expanded the number of alternate officials. For several years, there were two alternates, a referee and an official at another position. Seeman was the official best suited to go into the game. So he worked the second half of the conference championship game at field judge — a position he never worked in the NFL. 

Alternate referee Jeff Triplette helps separate players in a playoff game. Alternates can’t call penalties, but they can assist the crew in keeping the peace.

In 2012, the NFL changed the alternate official structure. Now, there are three alternates in a playoff game: backfield position (referee or umpire), line of scrimmage position (head linesman or line judge) and a deep position (field judge, side judge or back judge). So now if an alternate goes into a game they go in at a position that most closely matches their current role. In 2019, there were four alternates in playoff games to include a referee and an umpire instead of one of them.

There are even more alternates in the Super Bowl, currently 5: referee, umpire, line of scrimmage position, deep wing position, and back judge. So, if an alternate ever goes into a Super Bowl, they are even more comfortable. 

With the advent of instant replay and closer communications between the replay official and the crew, playoff alternates are wired in and act as a liaisons during the game. They let the replay official and official’s observer know what’s happening on the field, and they can also answer questions from coaches to free up the game officials from distractions. The late Chad Brown was an alternate umpire for Super Bowl XXXIII, and mentioned in his book Inside the Meat Grinder that he had to assist the crew with inspecting the game balls before the game due to the fact that so many extra balls are used for that game.

Alternate officials cannot make any calls for the on-field officials, but they have been known to intervene in sideline confrontations and help break up any combatants. While they are happy to be there and would rather be on the field, they hope they wear the warm-up jacket and headsets and stand on the sideline all game.

Timeline of alternate officials

Number of alternate officials assigned to postseason games since 1990 (Football Zebras research):

  Wild Card & Divisional Conference Championship Super Bowl
1990–2002 1 2 2
2003–05 2 2 3
2006–11 2 2 5
2012–18 3 3 5
2019 4 4 5
2020– 5 7 + Replay 7 + Replay

Images: Charles Curtis/Duluth News Tribune, NFL/Fox 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?"