NFL Officiating 101: Positions and Duties

Kate Arhar
Senior Sports Editor

By Kate Arhar // @ClvlndK8 

As the NFL season heads into Week 5, I’m seeing a bunch of complaints from fans regarding the officiating. Everything from missed to horrendous calls is being written about in social media and is causing much consternation among fan bases. Some are even taking these calls personally.

As for me, I tend to be a bit of a stickler for grammar and such things. I like it when people use the correct terms for officials and I very seldom see people appropriately credit the Line Judge or Referee with doing the job they have.

So, I thought it might be time to share with you all the basics of NFL Officiating: what are the “positions” and duties of these people who seem to have more and more impact on how games are being played.



REFEREE: The guy who talks on the mic and looks into the TV camera. Oh, and the final authority in all decisions.

The referee is located in the backfield and he should be lined up behind the quarterback by around 10 yards. Whether under center or in the shotgun, he is 10 yards back to get a better look at the entire line.  He looks for infractions around the quarterback, anything from holding to illegal blocks to roughing the passer.
No matter who throws the flag, it is the referee who will explain the penalty(ies) to the offenders captain and head coach, let’s them know which player is being charged with the damage and hears the decision regarding waiving or acceptance of the penalty.
Finally, he decides if the chains are needed for a measurement when it’s a close call for a first down due to a penalty or as the result of the preceding play. He’s the “face of the officials” for the game and the one most likely to get yelled at by fans if they aren’t happy with his work.

UMPIRE: The person standing about 5 yards behind the defensive line, usually crouched down with his hands on his knees getting a level view of the line of scrimmage. Once the ball is snapped, he usually works his way across the line of scrimmage and ends up in the offensive backfield.

The umpire is the main assistant to the referee, throwing in his opinion on any calls needed to determine possible change of possession. He records all timeouts, scores and winners of the coin toss. He wipes the ball down if it’s wet or muddy or snowy. Doesn’t seem like too great of a job, except…

He is also the person who makes sure the plays start legally, meaning, he counts the number of men on the field (should be 11), watches for any illegal players downfield or ineligible receivers, and (big job here) once the ball is snapped, he looks for offensive holding penalties.


DOWN JUDGE: Formerly referred to as the Head Linesman, this official stands on the sidelines and looks right down the barrel of the Line of Scrimmage. He’s looking for guys lined up in the neutral zone or across the line, he watches for illegal motions and shifts, and he also calls out players for illegally being downfield or even illegal use of the hands.

He is responsible for any out-of-bounds determinations on his side of the field. He also keeps an eye on the chain crew, ensuring they are marked correctly, moved correctly and – most importantly – that the down markers are right. You often see him throwing a marker on the field to track forward progress during plays.
Lastly, when a player enters the game as an Eligible Receiver, he reports to the Down Judge.
Sarah Thomas, NFL Line Judge

LINE JUDGE: Across the field from the Down Judge is the Line Judge. He/she is also watching for illegal shifts or motions and players getting into the neutral zone. Plus, he/she can assist the umpire with any calls regarding holding, illegal use of the hands or even make a false start call for the referee.

Most often, someone else makes these calls and the Line Judge either backs them up or disagrees, depending on the view from his angle.

The line judge makes 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.

FIELD JUDGE: See that person lined 25 yards deep behind the defense? The one over there across from the tight end? That is the Field Judge aka The Clock Master.

The Field Judge literally watches the clock all game long, throwing flags for delay of game and ensuring the Game Clock and Play Clocks both start correctly.  He assist the Back Judge in watching the defensive players to ensure they have no more than 11 players on the field.

He also rules on plays regarding the goal line behind the defense – or at least, the unit that is on defense when the ball is snapped.  He is also the King of the Pass, meaning, he decides if catches were legal, of there are any pass interference penalties committed by either side and checks on all eligible receivers for the tight end side of the field.

Also, he marks the spot if a play to his side goes out of bounds. They yellow flag you see on their belts is for penalties, but they also have other bean bag type markers used for out-of-bound, forward progress, etc.


SIDE JUDGE: See that other person about 20 yards deep behind the defense? Not the one lined up with the tight end, the other one. Yeah him… that’s the Side Judge.

His duties are identical to those of the Back Judge, watching the area between the Field Judge and the Umpire for any infractions. BUT he does have more to due during kicking plays. He is the one watching on kickoffs for any penalties regarding legal catches, if a player signaled for a fair catch, blocks in the back, etc. Any issues involved during kicking plays go to him for a final decision.


BACK JUDGE:  OK, last but not least…. that guy all the way in the back by himself? Like he had garlic and onions for lunch and no one wants to be near him… right in the middle of the field? That is the Back Judge. (Aptly named, you see)

Typically lined up towards the wide receiver side of the field, he is also watching for how many men are in play, looking for ineligible receivers, pass interference, legal catches, etc. He basically monitors all the real estate between the Umpire and the Field Judge. And from what I can tell, this guys get the biggest workout as he has the most ground to cover during plays.

Oh, and during scoring kicks, he is one of the guys positioned under the goalpost and rules whether the extra point / field goal attempt was successful. Arms Up!

So there you have it… the seven guys who are charged with maintaining “law and order” on the football field! Before you judge, please remember just how difficult their job is!


Talk NFL Football with Kate on Twitter // @ClvlndK8

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