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8th on-field official is not likely to be implemented soon in the NFL, if ever

Football Zebras has confirmed that for the fourth time in five years, the NFL will not experiment with an eighth on-field official position in the preseason. The NFL hasn’t experimented with an eight-person crew since 2019.

The NFL currently has seven on-field officials — referee, umpire, down judge, line judge, field judge, side judge and back judge — along with a replay official who works in the press box on game days.

The NCAA has eight on-field officials — the same officials as the NFL, plus a center judge who lines up opposite the referee in the offensive backfield — to help rule on line play and spot the ball faster during those crazy no-huddle, basketball-on-grass games. The college football umpire remains in the “traditional position” lined up behind the defense, usually right behind the linebackers.

In 2010, the NFL citing umpire safety, moved the umpire into the backfield opposite the referee. For a few years, the umpire would go back to their traditional position lined up with the linebackers the last few minutes of a half. But, after a few seasons, the umpire moved into the backfield for the entire game. In 2009, before the move, the NFL recorded the umpire being knocked down up to 200 times during the season.

Starting in 2010, the NFL tried to slot an eighth on-field official at different places on the field. They tried the eighth official in the backfield (making three officials in the offensive backfield), a third official on one sideline (between the down judge and the side judge), and the middle judge placed between 15 and 22 yards in the secondary. The NFL didn’t experiment with an eighth official in 2018, tried it again in 2019, but there haven’t been any additional experiments since then (the 2020 preseason was canceled due to covid).

Since the NFL cited umpire safety for the move, I would be shocked if the NFL moved an official back into the defensive backfield. All the other positions seemed to either clog the field or failed to provide markedly improved coverage. It appears the juice isn’t worth the squeeze for putting an eighth official on a NFL field.

It was Walt Anderson, then as head of officiating for the Big 12 Conference, who first implemented the NCAA’s center judge in 2013. Oddly, the quest to add an eighth official in the NFL might end with Anderson as the senior vice president of officiating.

Since the NFL started expedited replay last year, the replay official has become an even more integral part of the officiating crew. I think the NFL is content to go with seven on-field officials and have the replay official take a more proactive role in the game.

Photo: Cam Filipe/Football Zebras

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Mark Schultz
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?"

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