Zebra Talk : Those Guys in Stripes

football, rules, official

Oh yes…buckle up for two MORE new features this week, because there’s just so much good content to cover in the NFL. Today we’re going to be diving into a new series on a subject which, at first glance, might want to make you poke your eyes out. But in the long run you’ll be glad to know this stuff. (I promise!)

Over the next few weeks, we are going to be breaking down NFL rules – what all the penalties are, how they are enforced, and how coaches handle them throughout the course of a game. But before we get started with the rules, we need to know who the rule enforcers are (the guys in stripes).

An officiating crew is not just a handful of refs. It’s actually assembled much like a team; there are different positions for different purposes. I’m going to try to make this as simple and painless as possible, so just stick with me as we go over each official and his (or her!) job description:

The Referee (or Head Official)

The referee is the head honcho, the guy who calls the shots. Have you ever seen Ed Hochuli and his guns call a holding penalty? That’s the referee. Not only does he signal and announce penalties, he also has the final say on all rulings on the field, what the down and distance is, and how the rules are interpreted in any given situation. He’s also the guy who will go under the hood to watch replays to confirm rulings on the field. Last but not least, he’s the official who watches the quarterback to monitor any illegal activity by/to the quarterback.

Dead Giveaway: He’s the only guy out there with a white hat on.


Most of the umpire’s duties revolve around the line of scrimmage. He watches offensive and defensive lineman to monitor any illegal activity going on there. The umpire also records the score, winner of the coin toss, and keeps track of timeouts. Finally, he’s in charge of making sure the players are dressed according to league rules. (Random job: he also dries the ball off in rain/snow situations. Just in case you were wondering who does that. The eternal question: now answered.)

Head Linesman 

The head linesman is the official who watches the neutral zone for false start or offsides penalties (which we will talk more about in the coming weeks). He makes the calls on any infraction occurring prior to or during the snap. He also rules on all out of bounds plays on his side of the field, and has the task of placing his foot wherever forward progress ended after the play is whistled dead. The head linesman and the line judge (who we will discuss next) work together on opposite sides of the field and confer on illegal motion and illegal shift calls.

Line Judge

The line judge’s most important job is supervising the timing of the game – the end of quarters, the 2-minute warning, getting back on the field after halftime – the line judge is in charge of signifying these events and any others involving time-keeping. As mentioned above, he also assists the head linesman in several rulings and is positioned on the opposite side of the field, but along with all of those duties, he is also responsible for being the right hand man of pretty much every other official on the field. This dude’s busy.

Field Judge

The field judge stays on the same side as the line judge, but 20 yards deeper. He keeps an eye on the wide receivers on his side of the field and monitors illegal activity by/to them and also rules on whether or not catches are made or interfered with. He is also charged with determining whether or not a player is in or out of bounds during plays occurring in his section of the field.

Side Judge

He’s the field judge, but on the head linesman’s side (with a few slight variations).

Back Judge

You are most familiar with the back judge because of his collaboration with the field judge; they are the two officials who stand on either side of the field goal post and rule whether the kick is good or no good. The back judge also takes a position 25 yards downfield, usually on the tight end’s side, and keeps an eye on all deep mid-field action on both sides of the ball. He’s also in charge of keeping track of the time on the play clock and the time elapsed over halftime.

This list is certainly not an exhaustive list of all of the responsibilities of each official, but it’s a good start to know the basics of who each guy is, where he stands, and what he does. (For a complete list of duties, check out the NFL rulebook.)

Does that make sense? Any questions or comments? (I won’t even throw a yellow flag at your for asking!)

Wait…What Happened? : Offsetting Dead Ball Fouls

football, advanced, packers, niners, refs

We did a bunch of these posts last season, and I’m bringing them back again this season because I found them really helpful! I hope you do, too!

Each week, something weird happens in an NFL game. So each Tuesday, we’ll review what happened and break it down in Normal Girl terms. This time around the bend we’ll be talking about the snafu with the refs and the Packers over the weekend.

And it’s not even 2012!

Somehow, someway, the Packers always seem to be on the bad end of a bad call by an officiating crew – regular, replacement, the guy next door – doesn’t matter! These calls have a way of finding the Packers. It’s a hoot.

In this edition, the Packers had a hand in their own demise. Let’s recap the situation:

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews body slammed Niners QB Colin Kaepernick to the ground…out of bounds. That’s clearly going to draw a flag for unnecessary roughness. The unfortunate move by Matthews ignited the fury of Niners offensive lineman Joe Staley, who had a few choice words for Matthews on the sidelines (who, honestly, had it coming, and probably should have been flagged again rather than Staley). That was enough for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the 49ers. Having two penalties of certain kinds (but not all kinds) can be like multiplying two negative numbers: they negate each other. It’s called having “offsetting penalties,” and that’s what happened on Sunday: Unnecessary Roughness (15 yards) x Unsportsmanlike Conduct (15 yards) = offsetting penalties.

So the refs replayed the down – meaning that everything was reset as it was before the penalties – the Niners were back at Green Bay’s 10-yard line, 3rd and 6. And Kaepernick proceeded to throw a 10-yarder to Anquan Boldin. Touchdown Niners.


Mike Pereira, ruler of all things officiating, commented during the game that offsetting penalties on dead ball fouls (penalties that occur when the ball is not in play) should result in a loss of down, not replaying the down. So because Kaepernick gained 4-yards before getting WWF’d by Matthews, it should have been 4th and 2 from the Green Bay 6-yard line. Which likely would have meant a field goal try for the Niners, not a touchdown attempt.

Head official Bill Leavy acknowledged the mistake after the game, and another acknowledgement from the NFL a year too late could also be forthcoming.

But, as noted above, the Packers had a hand in creating this situation. For one, the hit by Matthews never should have happened. They deserved to be penalized for that – even if it was by a bad call. Also, football is like life: you do your best with the hand you are dealt, whether it’s “fair” or not. The Packers defense was to blame for allowing the proceeding TD to Boldin, not the bad call. The kicker is that the play that caused all the hoopla never would have happened if Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had declined the penalty from the previous play (a 5-yard illegal formation call on the Niners). If he had, it would have forced the Niners into a 4th and 1 (the next down) rather than the 3rd and 6 (5-yard penalty, replay down).

Coach McCarthy was none too pleased with the prospect of discussing the aforementioned decision making sequence:

“We went for third-and-6. Obviously, the play went into another sequence of plays where there were two fouls called. I don’t really think that even factored in the game. So if that’s your criticism, then that’s fine.”

And really, the man’s got a point. Again: football is like life. The what-if’s will drive you crazy if you let them.

But really…what does a team have to do to get a good call around here?!