For the past several preseasons, the NFL has experimented with eight-person crews. Football Zebras has learned that experiment is on hold this year.
Eight-person crews started in the NCAA. In college, the eighth official is the center judge, who lines up in the offensive backfield with the referee. NCAA umpires stay in their traditional position behind the defensive line.
In 2010, the NFL switched the umpire to the offensive backfield due to safety reasons. Soon after, the NFL started experimenting with eight-person crews. But, the NFL could not add the center judge and move the umpire back to a location deemed unsafe.
So, in the past few preseasons, NFL officials experimented with just about every formation except the college alignment. Officials added an eighth official on the wings (three wing officials on one side, two on the other), three officials in the offensive backfield, and the middle judge. None of these experiments ever caught on for the regular season, even though NFL executives were very keen on the idea.
Eight-person crews too much this year
Why no eight-person crew experiments this preseason? I think that there is too much on senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron’s plate this year. The NFL this season modified the helmet rules, catch rules, and kickoff mechanics. Then, four referees retired, twice the number expected. One of those things presents a big challenge, but Riveron is dealing with all at once.
The eighth officials are usually veterans, which requires the officials in the development program to pad out the crews. While there will still be development officials working in preseason, their involvement is scaled down compared to last year.
Right now, it is more important to get the catch rules and helmet rules right. And, it is important for Riveron to make sure new referees Clay Martin, Shawn Smith, Shawn Hochuli and Alex Kemp get off to a good start.
The NFL can experiment with adding an official next year; there are many more pressing matters for 2018.