The seven NFL officials on the field have specific roles and responsibilities that make it possible to correctly and consistently call games at football’s highest level. Proper training and positioning prepare officials to be in the right place to make the right call.
Officials are usually referred to by the general term of referees, but actually, there is only one referee on the field during a game. Each official has his own title and assigned responsibilities: referee, umpire, head linesman, line judge, back judge, field judge and side judge. A referee is the only official wearing a white hat, all other officials wear black hats.
The referee is the lead official and has control of the game. They are generally the final authority in all decisions, and it is their role to announce all penalties. The referee explains penalties to the offending team’s captain and coach and announces which player is responsible for the penalty. The referee is positioned in the backfield, approximately 10 yards behind the quarterback before the start of the play. They monitors illegal hits on the quarterback, watches for illegal blocks near the quarterback and determines if the yardage chains are needed on the field for a measurement.
The umpire lines up approximately five yards off the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball. They assist the referee in decisions involving possession of the ball. The umpire monitors the legality of play on the line of scrimmage with a special emphasis on offensive holding and illegal linemen down field. They make sure that the offense has no more than 11 players on the field and checks the legality of player’s equipment. The umpire records all scores, timeouts, records the winner of the coin toss and wipes the ball dry between plays during inclement weather.
The head linesman lines up on the sideline that straddles the line of scrimmage looking for scrimmage violations like offsides or encroachment and penalties like illegal motion, illegal shifts, illegal use of hands and illegal men downfield. The head linesman rules on all out-of-bounds plays along the sideline where positioned. They keep tabs on the chain crew and marks the chain to a yard marker on the field as a reference point for a measurement on the field. Also, the head linesman keeps track of all eligible receivers and marks the forward progress of the ball.
The line judge lines up on the opposite side of the field from the head linesman. They assist the head linesman on making calls of illegal motion, illegal shifts, offsides or encroachment. The line judge assists the umpire with illegal use of the hands and holding calls and assists the referee on false start calls. They make sure the quarterback does not cross the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball, watches for offensive lineman going downfield too early on punts, supervises the timing of the game and supervises substitutions by the team on the side of the field where positioned.
The back judge sets up 20 yards deep in the defensive backfield on the wide receiver side of the field. One of the roles of the back judge is to make sure the defensive team has no more than 11 players on the field. They watch all eligible receivers on the wide receiver side of the field. The back judge is responsible for monitoring the area between the umpire and the field judge. They rule the legality of catches and pass interference penalties and have the final say regarding the legality of kicks during kickoffs. During field goals, the back judge is positioned under the goalpost and rules whether the field goal attempt was successful.
The field judge lines up 25 yards deep in the defensive backfield on the tight end side of the field. They are responsible for keeping track of the play clock and calling a delay of game if the clock expires. Like the back judge, the field judge makes sure the defensive team has no more than 11 players on the field. They rule on plays that cross the defense’s goal line, rules on the legality of catches and pass interference penalties and monitors all eligible receivers on the tight end side of the field. Also, if a play goes out of bounds on the tight end side of the field, the field judge marks the spot.
The side judge is positioned 20 yards deep in the defensive backfield near the same sideline as the head linesman. Their duties are essentially the same as the back judge and they make sure the defensive team has no more than 11 players on the field and watches all eligible receivers from that side of the field. The side judge is responsible for monitoring the area between the umpire and the field judge, assists on calling the legality of kicks during kickoffs and rules on the legality of catches and pass interference penalties.