After taking a preseason off from experimenting with new officiating positions, the NFL will once again look at ways to add an eighth official on the field.
Since 2010, there have been various experiments in preseason games with different mechanics for an extra official. At the beginning of the decade, the focus was adding more support for pass coverage. Beginning a few years after the umpire was moved to the offensive backfield in 2010, there has been an attempt to regain the old vantage point without exposing an official to injury in the “meat grinder” just outside of the tackle box.
Executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent has made a public case that the NFL should add an eighth official. Despite that, there was no tinkering in the 2018 preseason, likely due to the fact that there were an unprecedented four new officials promoted to the referee position. The officiating department evaluates the effectiveness of the position through examining video and interviewing officials and coaches.
The two positions that are being looked at are ones we’ve seen a variation of before, although it is a very limited trial with a total of 4 games this preseason.
The middle judge (MJ) is a frequently studied position, which places the official adjacent to the back judge, who is usually at the center of the field. From there, the middle judge is looking into the core of the line, focusing on the center and guards. The primary key is to watch for defensive holding as they push into the interior line and for offensive holding as they are pushing into the second level. If it is evident that a pass is developing, the middle judge will then transition to a zone coverage so as to not obstruct deep routes.
The umpire will also get a look at the center and guards from the offensive side of the ball. The down judge and line judge then will have to watch the tackles and an outside eligible receiver, while the referee is responsible for the quarterback and any backs.
The second umpire (U₂) has not been used since 2015, but now it is getting a new look. The “three-across” alignment has the two umpires approximately 15 yards behind the line, and “one position outside” of the tight end slot (either if there is a tight end there or where one would be). The referee would be 2-3 yards deeper and be aligned with the right-side “B” gap (aligned with the inside shoulder of the right tackle). The two umpires will key the guard and tackle on their side of the field, as opposed to the 2015 trial that had them viewing the opposite side linemen. The referee has the quarterback and center, with the line of scrimmage officials picking up any back on their side of the ball.
In the new three-across alignment, the line of scrimmage and backfield officials divide the offensive backfield into zone coverage. As the play flows to one side or the other, the zone shifts with it. Therefore, a run to the right has the U₂ focusing on the runner who transitions from the referee’s zone and the down/line judge taking the lead blocking until the runner transitions to their zone.
In Preseason Week 2, there are two trials of the eighth official:
- R 34 Clete Blakeman will be the U₂ in the Dolphins-Buccaneers game.
- BJ 46 Perry Paganelli will be the MJ in the Bills-Panthers game.
These positions will also get another trial in Preseason Week 4:
- U 64 Dan Ferrell will be the U₂ in the Chiefs-Packers game.
- BJ 17 Steve Patrick will be the MJ in the Lions-Browns game.
Although mentioned as a possibility in the offseason, the SkyJudge position was discussed, but unanimously rejected, by the Competition Committee; coaches took a nonbinding vote, which was unanimous, to keep the option of a SkyJudge open.
8th official experiments in NFL preseason, 2010-present
Positioning is indicated in parentheses: (+) yards downfield, (–) yards in offensive backfield
|2019||U₂||Second umpire||2||RG and RT; maintain middle-right zone of backfield as play flows (–15, outside RTE slot, adjacent U)|
|MJ||Middle judge||2||center and guards; holding interior line (def.), 2nd level (off.); zone coverage on pass (+18-20, adjacent BJ)|
|2017||MJ||Middle judge||5||center and guards; holding at 2nd level (+18-20, adjacent BJ)|
|2016||MJ||Middle judge||16||center and guards; holding at 2nd level (+18-20, adjacent BJ)|
|2015||CJ||Center judge||5||center and guards; holding in the A gap (+20-22)|
|U₂||Second umpire||8||center presnap, then opposite side guard and tackle (–15, behind RTE slot)|
|2014||CJ||Center judge||Eligible receiver support; R, U, HL, LJ zone backfield coverage (+9, sideline, halfway between LJ and FJ)|
|BU||Backup umpire||RG and RT, center redundant with U (–12, behind RTE slot)|
|2012||—||None||0||[ongoing labor dispute with officiating union]|
|2011||DJ||deep judge||12||Interior eligible receivers (+25)|
|2010||DJ||deep judge||4||Interior eligible receivers, offensive line support (+25)|