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The men wearing black-and-white striped shirts on an American football field are the officials. They enforce the rules, keep players from hurting each other, call penalties, and monitor the clock. Without the officials, a football game would be even more chaotic than it appears to be!

Each official carries a whistle and a weighted, bright yellow flag, which he throws to signal that a penalty has been called on a play. In the event that an official throws his yellow flag during a play and then sees another penalty, he throws his hat.

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Football Referee

The referee has general oversight and control of the game. He’s the final authority for the score, the number of a down in case of a disagreement, and all rule interpretations when a debate arises among the other officials. He’s the only official who wears a white hat; all the other officials wear black hats.

The referee has a number of responsibilities:

  • Announces all penalties and confers with the offending team’s captain, explaining the penalty

  • Monitors the quarterback during the game, watching for any illegal hits on the quarterback and checking the legality of blocks made near the quarterback

  • Requests that the head linesman and his assistants bring the yardage chains onto the field to determine whether the ball has reached the necessary line for a new first down, as needed, at the end of any down

  • Notifies the head coach when any player is ejected for unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct

Umpire

The umpire has these duties:

  • Confirming the legality of the players’ equipment

  • Watching all play along the line of scrimmage, the division line between the offensive and defensive players

  • Making sure that the offensive team has no more than 11 players on the field prior to the snap of the ball

  • Monitoring the legality of all contact between the offensive and defensive linemen. This official calls most of the holding penalties

  • Assisting the referee on decisions involving possession of the ball in close proximity to the line of scrimmage

  • Recording all timeouts, the winner of the coin toss, and all scores

  • Making sure the offensive linemen don’t move downfield illegally on pass plays

  • Drying a wet ball prior to the snap when it’s raining

Head linesman

The head linesman has a number of jobs:

  • Straddles the line of scrimmage and watches for encroachment, offside, illegal men downfield, and all the other line-of-scrimmage violations

  • Rules on all out-of-bounds plays to his side of the field

  • Oversees the chain crew and grabs the chain when measuring for a first down

  • Usually runs in after a play is whistled dead and places his foot to show where forward progress was made by the ball carrier at the end of the play

  • Assists the line judge (who stands opposite the head linesman) with illegal motion calls and any illegal shifts or movement

  • Checks for illegal use of hands during kicks or passes

Line judge

The line judge lines up on the opposite side of the field from the head linesman and serves as an overall helper while being responsible for illegal motion and illegal shifts. He has a number of chores:

  • Assists the head linesman with offside and encroachment calls

  • Helps the umpire with holding calls and watching for illegal use of hands on the end of the line

  • Assists the referee with calls regarding false starts and forward laterals behind the line of scrimmage

  • Makes sure that the quarterback hasn’t crossed the line of scrimmage prior to throwing a forward pass

  • Supervises substitutions made by the team seated on his side of the field

  • Remains on the line of scrimmage on punts to ensure that none of the ends move downfield prior to the ball being kicked

One of the line judge’s most important jobs is supervising the timing of the game:

  • If the game clock becomes inoperative, he assumes the official timing on the field.

  • He advises the referee when time has expired at the end of each quarter.

  • In the NFL, the he signals the referee when two minutes remain in a half, stopping the clock for the two-minute warning.

  • During halftime, he notifies the home team’s head coach when five minutes remain before the start of the second half.

Back and side judges

The back judge rules on

  • Whether the defensive team has no more than 11 players on the field

  • The legality of catches or pass interference

  • Whether a receiver is interfered with

  • Whether a receiver has possession of the ball before going out of bounds

  • Whether field goal and extra point kicks are good

With teams passing the ball more often, the side judge was added in 1978 as the seventh official for NFL games. The side judge is essentially another back judge who positions himself 20 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage and opposite the field judge. He’s another set of eyes monitoring the legalities downfield, especially during long pass attempts. On field goal and extra point attempts, he lines up next to the umpire under the goal post and decides whether the kicks are good.

Field judge

The field judge has the following duties:

  • Is responsible for the 40/25 second clock, which relates to time allowed between plays in the NFL

  • Counts the number of defensive players

  • Is responsible for forward passes that cross the defensive goal line and any fumbled ball in his area

  • Watches for pass interference, monitoring the tight end’s pass patterns, calling interference, and making decisions involving catching, recovery, out-of-bounds spots, or illegal touching of a fumbled ball after it crosses the line of scrimmage

  • Watches for illegal use of hands by the offensive players, especially the ends and wide receivers, on defensive players


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