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NFL100: Officials used to use only one ball for a game

NFL officials used to play with only one football.



Today, it is rare to see officials spot the same football for two straight downs. Watch the next game and you’ll see the wing officials tossing a new football to the referee or umpire after every play. For a regular game, the NFL prepares 48 game footballs and 6 special kicking balls, or K balls.

Well, in the first half of NFL history, NFL officials rarely rotated a new football into the game, and that was only after the ball got too wet or a kick sailed into the stands. In fact, prior to 1954, they only changed a ball out at the end of a quarter in wet conditions.

After an incomplete pass, the officials formed a relay line and tossed the ball back to the line of scrimmage. If there was a penalty, an official retrieved the ball from the dead-ball spot the sprinted it back to the previous spot for enforcement.

While it sounds like a time-consuming chore, officials were actually very efficient when using only one football. And, officials were expected to hustle in spotting the ball.

New down, new ball!

Officials always toss a ball to their partners using an underhand spiral. A game is not the time to show off their quarterback skills!

With the advent of an aggressive passing game in the late 1970s and on, the NFL encouraged officials to rotate in a new ball from the sidelines after an incomplete pass. Instead of tossing the ball back to the line of scrimmage, a wing official turned, got a new ball from the ball boy and tossed it back to the umpire. The downfield official got the other ball that just fell incomplete and tossed it to the ball boy on the sidelines. (As a result, in 1976, the home team was required to have 24 balls available, up from the 12 they previously had to have on hand.)

This philosophy expanded to include balls that went out of bounds. The wing official recovered the ball from the runner and put it down at the forward progress spot. The other wing official got a ball from the ball boy and tossed it into the umpire. That way, the umpire could mirror the out of bounds ball and get a proper spot instead of going off the wing official’s foot. Once the umpire spotted the new ball, the wing official picked the old ball up and gave it to the ball boy.

By the 1990s, officiating crews got a new ball every time the play ended outside the hash marks and had the relay process down to a science. The line of scrimmage officials (head linesman/down judge and line judge) would mark the progress spot and the deep wings (field judge and side judge) would get a new ball. The deep wing would then toss the ball in to the umpire. The umpire would toss it to the referee who then spotted it. If it was a short gain, the umpire would simply jog the new ball in and spot it.

BALL SUPPLY Home team Away team K balls
1940 12 — —
1976 24 — —
1999 24 — 8-12
2008 12 + 12 backup 12 (+12 backup, optional, outdoor only) 6-8
2015 12 + 12 backup 12 (+12 backup, optional, outdoor only) 6
2016 12 + 12 backup 12 + 12 backup 6
  • 1934: Shape of ball changed to current shape
  • 1940s: White ball can be used for night games; in bad weather, ball changed out at quarter only
  • 1954: In wet conditions, ball changed out as needed
  • 1956: White-striped ball for night games
  • 1968: NFL rulebook includes AFL’s Spalding J5V ball until merger
  • 1976: White-striped ball no longer used
  • 1999: K ball procedures enacted, kicking balls shipped to officials’ hotel from manufacturer
  • 2007: Limited preparation of K balls by equipment managers in presence of officials

Keep your eye on the ball!

It’s always embarrassing when a official drops a relay pass from his colleague. Depending on wind and athletic ability, officials get to a position where the pass won’t hit a player and they can get the ball to their partner in the air. The receiving official gets open where they can catch the ball. It’s also important during a night game to keep the ball out of the lights or the official tasked to catch the ball will get blinded.

Every official from Pop Warner to the NFL has a funny ball relay story to tell.

But, it is critical for officials to move quickly in the two-minute offense. You’ll notice then that officials sprint with the ball, hand the ball to the umpire and the umpire sprints to spot the ball. The officials don’t rotate a new ball in during the final, panicky moments of a half. This is also the case when teams elect to go no-huddle outside of the two-minute warning, however, the officials will control the tempo of the game at that time when the situation is not dire.

The officials always want to keep the game moving, and proper ball rotation helps teams get back to the action sooner.

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?"