In the NFL, the games are officiated by a seven-man crew of officials: the referee (the boss), line judge, head linesman, umpire, side judge, field judge and the back judge. In prior months we have taken a close look at the jobs of the referee and umpire and the line judge and head linesman. Today we continue our look at the men in stripes with the back judge.
If you’ve been watching games on a regular basis, you should have noticed that you can see the referee, umpire, head linesman and line judge throughout a game. As the officials closest to the line of scrimmage they are in the camera’s view on every play. Because of his position on the field, the back judge is virtually invisible to the television audience and to the live audience most of the time, too. However, he has a big role on long pass plays, especially those caught in the end zone. So, he can go from being the least visible to the most significant official on the field in seconds.
Position: Before the play, the back judge positions himself about 25 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, typically toward the side of the field where the tight end is in the formation.
1. During the play, he watches the tight end and/or the running back that runs along that side of the field (even if they don’t have the ball). He will be watching for illegal blocks by the tight end or back and any illegal action by the defenders, such as holding or pass interference.
2. Between plays, the back judge watches for illegal substitutions and counts the number of players on defense.
3. The back judge keeps track of the play clock that runs between the end of the prior play and the snap of the football for the next play; 40 seconds or 25 seconds, depending on the situation. Stadiums all have a large play clock positioned at the ends of the field so that the quarterbacks can see them clearly. Ideally situated on the field, the back judge keeps that time if the stadium clocks are inoperable and signals the time remaining to the quarterback. This came into play this past Saturday in the game between the University of Michigan and the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers. The scoreboards at the Big House were inoperable during the game, so the back judge had to keep the play clock. When ten seconds were left on the play clock, he would signal the quarterback by raising his hand above his head. At the five-second mark, he would motion a countdown by swinging his arm out at shoulder height at one-second intervals (much like they do in basketball to count the seconds that the offense spends on its own end of the court).
4. He also keeps track of the intermission between the two halves and notifies the visiting head coach when there are five minutes left in the halftime intermission.
5. Along with rules infractions, the back judge must also rule on catches (complete or incomplete), plays at the end line (the boundary at the back of the end zone), and the illegal touching of loose balls. This is typically when he is thrust into the spotlight on big plays.
6. On kicks, the back judge follows the ball on a punt and rules on action in its vicinity. He also rules on kicking infractions, such as penalties associated with a fair catch and illegal blocks on returns.
7. Finally, along with the field judge, the back judge rules on field goal and extra point kick attempts.
Whew! He has a lot to do for a guy in the shadows…