Today, you get your first lesson on the different positions and responsibilities of the officials that police a football game. First, though, note that I call them “officials,” not “referees.” In football, the referee is actually the boss of the officiating crew. Therefore, it would be incorrect (and bad form) to use that term to refer to any official that doesn’t fill that role.
Here’s the low-down on the referee and the umpire, two of the several officials that you will see on the field during a football game:
As mentioned above, the referee is the boss of the crew. While all of the other officials on the field will be wearing black hats, the referee can easily be identified by his white hat (thus, you may also hear the referee being called the “white hat”).
1. Position*: The referee is positioned behind and to the side of the quarterback (roughly 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage). He will typically stand on the side of the quarterback’s dominant hand; if the quarterback throws right-handed, the referee will stand to the right of the quarterback.
2. Responsibilities: As the head official, the referee has several jobs:
a. Before the game starts, the referee conducts the coin toss to determine who receives the ball first.
b. Throughout the game, the referee has responsibility for the administration of the game as a whole. For example, he makes sure that the game and play clocks are functioning properly. He will also be the official who will settle disputes between the other officials concerning the outcome of a play or a penalty, and will address coaches’ concerns (or complaints) as needed.
c. During play, the referee’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of the quarterback. Therefore, he will focus on the quarterback during the play, watching for illegal hits against the quarterback. For example, a late hit occurs when a defensive player tackles the quarterback after the quarterback has gotten rid of the football, and the defensive player had the opportunity to stop his own momentum before making the tackle (these calls are often controversial because it seems so difficult for a defender barreling toward the quarterback to “pull up” in time). He may also call penalties for illegal holding and other blocking penalties. If the runner progresses down the field, the referee will follow him, looking for the runner to step out of bounds, and for illegal blocks behind the runner, among other things.
d. Before the play begins, the referee will also be watching for procedure penalties, such as the false start penalty, which I described in my previous post, and illegal motion.
e. When the play is over, the referee may double-check the location of the ball and the new line of scrimmage with the other officials on the sidelines. If a penalty is called, he meets with the official who saw the penalty and makes a final decision on whether to uphold the penalty. If the penalty is upheld, he turns to the sideline where the press box is located and makes the hand signal for that penalty. He will then verbally announce the penalty, the jersey number of the player that committed the penalty, and the resulting consequence, such as loss of yardage.
f. If a call on the field is challenged or the officials in the press box call for an instant replay (click here for the post on challenges and instant replay), the referee is the one that reviews the video of the play and makes a final determination on the call.
1. Position: The umpire used to be positioned behind the defensive linemen (so, about 5-7 yards behind the line of scrimmage). Citing safety concerns, the NFL changed the position of the umpire in 2010. Now, the umpire stands in the offense, adjacent to the running back, so about 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage. However, the umpire will be in his old position in the middle of the defense in these situations: (1) the final two minutes of the first half; (2) the final five minutes of the game; and (3) when the offense is inside its opponent's 5-yard line. There has also been talk of having umpires wear helmets, but this hasn't materialized yet. Umpires do get run over quite often, but they can hand out the punishment, too:
a. The umpire watches the offensive linemen for holding or illegal blocks, and illegal contact by the defensive linemen attempting to ward off blocks. During pass plays, he will advance toward the line of scrimmage to watch for offensive linemen moving illegally down-field.
b. On short passes, he helps rule on whether the pass is incomplete or trapped by the receiver (i.e., the ball is caught at ground level by the receiver after the ball hits the ground).
c. The umpire is also the fashion police on the field. He makes sure that the players’ uniforms and equipment are in compliance with the rules.
Even though these are only two of the officials on the crew, it’s important that you understand their roles in the game first. They are the officials that call probably the most-committed penalties (many people argue that you could probably call holding on every play). They are also the most visible given their positions on the field, and therefore the most likely to be yelled at by the crowd, the coaches, and your friends at home when you’re watching the game on TV.
*Only the positions during regular plays are described. Each official also has a specific position for special kinds of plays such as punts, kickoffs and extra point attempts.
**As I mentioned in my inaugural post, in 2009 I spent the football season as an official for youth football. Umpire is the position I worked most and is near and dear to my heart.