The NFL preseason is the time for the NFL officials to get back in the swing of things to prepare for the upcoming season. Officiating leadership at Art McNally Gameday Central also uses this time to experiment with new protocols and to allow for certain college officials to test their skills in the NFL. The NFL canceled the preseason last year due to the covid-19 pandemic, losing the opportunity for these officiating experiments. However, sources have told Football Zebras that in 2021 there are no such experiments planned. Three key trials that have been conducted in preseason are (1) veteran NFL officials trying out at the referee position, (2) potential future officials working preseason games, and (3) testing eight-person officiating crews for potential future implementation.
The NFL declined to confirm or elaborate on the nonexistence of preseason trials, citing their longstanding policy to not discuss officiating assignments. (In previous seasons, the league shared information on the 8th official experiments when requested.)
Referee tryouts are a key part of the referee training program, led by officiating coordinator and former referee Bill Leavy, to allow veteran officials to move through the pipeline to become a referee and lead a crew. There has been at least one tryout in every preseason since 2013, and 11 of the 17 current referees participated in at least one referee tryout before being promoted. Our unofficial depth chart only has side judges Jonah Monroe and Don Willard as the next potential promotions in that order.
While some Officiating Development Program officials are still working with veteran crews at training camps this season, for the first time since the advent of the program under the name Advanced Development Program, none of the ODP officials will officiate in preseason games. Even training camp assignments have been limited; the only assignments are a full crew of ODP officials officiating a joint practice between the Rams and Cowboys under the direction of referee Carl Cheffers, and one ODP official working at Titans’ training camp with referee Clete Blakeman, according to sources knowledgeable of the training camp assignments.
Experimentation with an eighth official has been used in preseasons since 2010, at different positions, to allow for more coverage of overall gameplay. As opposed to the college ranks that implemented the center judge position in the offensive backfield starting in 2013, the NFL has not settled on a preferred positioning or mechanics for the bonus official. For the fourth time since 2010, there will be no 8-official mechanic trials this preseason. Current NFL senior vice president of officiating training and development Walt Anderson was responsible for introducing the center judge position in the Big 12 conference, expanding to other conferences shortly after.
8th official experiments in NFL preseason, 2010-present
Positioning is indicated in parentheses: (+) yards downfield, (–) yards in offensive backfield
|2020||—||None||0||[preseason cancelled due to coronavirus pandemic]|
|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)|
While there are no experiments in the works for this preseason, this is subject to change.