When the NFL was born, only three officials called the game. Now there are seven –nine if you include the replay official and replay assistant — with calls to add another pair of eyes at field level.
As a part of the NFL’s 100th season, Football Zebras takes a look at officiating mechanics over the last century.
Crews of 3 and 4: Trying to keep the play boxed in (1920-46)
In the league’s infancy, the teams hired three officials to work a game: the referee, umpire and head linesman. The college game was already using four officials when the NFL came on the scene, but it would be a few years before the new kid on the block would require that.
Officials weren’t assigned to dedicated positions. An official could work as a referee one week and as an umpire the next week. The home team paid the officials from the gate receipts, and these were typically college officials that would double dip or high school coaches. By the early 1930s, the NFL took over assigning the officials.
The pro game was a mostly low-scoring, three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust affair, and the three officials were able to keep a lid on things.
The referee was (and still is) the main authority of the game. He was responsible for timing, length of periods, calling a game due to darkness, putting the ball in play, enforcing penalties, formation shifts and illegal batting, just to name a few duties. The rules called on the umpire to be a true “assistant referee” in helping determine penalty enforcements, possession, substitutions, kicking situations, other illegal acts and pass interference. The umpire was the final authority on ruling player equipment legal or illegal. The head linesman was responsible for determining the line to gain, setting the line of scrimmage, offside and out of bounds on his side. The officiating mechanics stated that the head linesman was to assist and report to the referee and umpire. There was a definite hierarchy on a pro officiating crew.
The NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame both state that the field judge was added in 1929, although it was still optional for a few more years as the Oct. 17, 1933, Green Bay Press Gazette reported.
Beginning in 1938 the NFL began assigning officials to games as a crew. This was also the first year that the NFL hired officials to one dedicated position for the entire season. By the 1940s there were basic mechanics for each position.
The referee lined up in basically the same spot he lines up today, the umpire lined up in the defensive backfield, and the field judge lined up downfield (on most plays). The head linesman was the only line of scrimmage official and offside calls were all on him.
If you watch footage from that era, the referee was much more active on run plays. He would line up to the “open” side of the field, opposite the head linesman. If a sweep came to his side, he and the field judge would help determine the out of bounds spot. The mechanics manual called for the referee to chase the runner no matter what direction he ran. A play would end and the referee would be a few steps behind, jumping over and around prone players to dig into the pile and find the ball.
The field judge would position himself deep in the secondary opposite the head linesman. He was responsible for deep passes and runs, and sideline plays to his side. If the play went to the head linesman’s side of the field, he’d pinch in and help the head linesman with progress and if it was a long run, he had goal line responsibility. The only time the field judge started on the line of scrimmage was when the ball was inside the five-yard line and he helped the rest of the crew to on plays near the goal line. The field judge also kept the official game time on the field.
The head linesman (renamed down judge by the NFL in 2017) was responsible for the chains, determining offside and forward progress. Of the four positions, this is the most unchanged over the years.
The umpire lined up with the linebackers in the defensive backfield. When a team lined up near the goal line, the umpire helped determine forward progress on line plunges. If the offense showed pass, the umpire retreated into the end zone to help rule on touchdown catches on the end line.
The four-man mechanics got real funky during field goal and extra point attempts. The referee always determined whether or not the ball passed between the uprights. The field judge stood under the goal posts and ruled on whether or not the ball passed over the cross bar. The idea behind that mechanic was that the kicked ball could angle sharply on a try and the field judge couldn’t run to the upright in time to judge the kick. The referee had a wider angle to rule on the uprights. A potential hole in this coverage was ruling on roughing the kicker. The referee was still responsible to rule on roughing fouls, while judging a kick at the same time. On extra-point attempts, where the angle is much sharper, the umpire was at the post on the goal line and the field judge was on the end line.
Crew of 5: A true ‘back’ judge (1947-64)
In 1952, the NFL, in response to the game becoming faster with more passes, added a fifth official, the back judge. The position originated in the All-America Football Conference as the sideline judge. Today the back judge is the deepest official in the secondary, but in 1947, the back judge started opposite the head linesman — in the offensive backfield!
In this video from the 1953 NFL Championship Game, the back judge is highlighted before the snap.
The back judge started a few steps into the offensive backfield and helped the head linesman determine false starts, offside, eligible receivers and illegal motion. If a player went in motion, the back judge determined illegal motion or shifts. Both the head linesman and the back judge would be tight to the formation, and occasionally had to backpedal when a motion man was coming their way before the snap.
If it was a running play, the back judge helped determine forward progress. If it was a pass play, the back judge broke downfield and assisted the field judge on pass interference, catch/incomplete, and forward progress after a catch.
The field judge worked the center of the field and the back judge and head linesman were responsible for the entire 120 yards of their sideline. The center-deep position remained the field judge until the NFL swapped the position name with the back judge in 1998.
Crew of 6: Reacting to a more open game (1965-78)
During the 1960s, the forward pass became more and more part of an offensive game plan. Plus scrambling quarterbacks like Fran Tarkenton made it difficult for the referee to determine whether or not the passer was behind the line of scrimmage when he fired the ball. So, the NFL added a sixth official — the line judge in 1965, with the AFL following the next season.
The line judge assumed many of the back judge presnap duties related to illegal motion, eligible receivers and offside. The back judge lined on the line judge’s sideline, 17 yards downfield. This was the first dedicated deep wing.
On a passing play, the head linesman would go downfield with his receivers and the line judge would “stay home” at the line of scrimmage to help determine illegal forward passes, and forward progress on quarterback sacks. The line judge was now responsible to keep official time on the field.
On field goals and tries, initially the field judge and referee teamed up to judge on whether or not the kick was good. The field judge got more upright responsibility (Jim Tunney can tell you all about that!). By 1966, the NFL decided to put both the back judge and field judge under each upright and judge a scoring kick all by themselves, letting the referee concentrate on roughing the kicker.
The field judge started each play shaded toward the head linesman’s side; the head linesman remained on an island on his sideline.
Crew of 7: Lynn Swann clothesline ushers in the side judge (1978-present)
The back judge, field judge and head linesman held down the secondary as the NFL took to the air with spectacular passing attacks during the 1970s. While the three officials worked well, there was a hole in their coverage, that defenders took advantage of by interfering with receivers, or worse.
In 1976, George Atkinson of the Oakland Raiders, clotheslined Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the receiver ran a crossing route. The officials were keying on other receivers and missed the foul.
In partial response to the Swann play and to get more eyes in the secondary, the NFL added the side judge in 1978. The head linesman finally had a team mate on the sideline! The side judge lined up 17 yards downfield, a mirror opposite to the back judge.
On extra-point tries, the side judge would operate as a second umpire. On field goals the side judge would stay on his sideline. In the early 1990s, the side judge served as a second umpire on field goals as well.
The last major position change happened in 2010. After 91 years the NFL moved the umpire to the offensive backfield, for the official’s safety and to get the official out of the way of the west coast offensive, three-yard crossing routes by receivers.
Crew of 8: Work in progress
The NFL has experimented with eight-person crews for the past several years, but has not found a position to their liking.
The jury is still out on whether there will be eight officials on the field. But, I’m sure the NFL officials of 100 years ago would look at the seven-person crews today and think it’s a luxury.
Ben Austro and Jeremy Snyder/Quirky Research contributed to this report.