You can't go to, watch, listen to or even talk about an NFL game without "the refs" getting brought up. "The refs" are an integral part of the game. Not only do they call fouls and assess penalties, they're also responsible for making sure everything happens: timing, spotting the ball, counting heads, keeping track of breaks...
NFL football just couldn't be played without the constant effort of seven-person "ref" crews that oversee every NFL game.
The thing is, they aren't "the refs." There's only one Referee, and Referees have very specific job duties within the crew. The Umpire, Head Linesman, Line Judge, Field Judge, Side Judge and Back Judge all do, too.
Far from just putting zebras everywhere and assuming everything will get called, the NFL Rulebook wisely calls out all of the responsibilities all seven officials have before, during and after the game.
What are they? Click "Next" to find out what the responsibilities of each NFL official are.
Referee John Parry explains a ruling to New Orleans Saints coaches and players.
There's only one Referee on the field, and what he says goes.
The Referee is responsible for, and has the final say on, the official score of the game. The Referee also has "final say" on what down it is, where the spot of the ball is and every other aspect of the game not specifically overseen by one of the other officials.
The Referee stands behind the offense, shading over to the quarterback's throwing side. The Referee's responsible for watching the quarterback on passing plays and running back on run plays. Calls like roughing the passer or whether a quarterback fumble was a forward pass are the Referee's in-play priorities.
The Referee also decides the spot of the ball, when the play clock and game clock should stop and start, and is responsible for all official signals, explanations and announcements to the players, coaches and crowd. Referees also have the honor of going into the little TV kiosk and reviewing all challenged plays.
They also get to wear the snazzy white hat.
The Umpire position used to be the most hazardous.
The Umpire's first responsibility is to make sure all the players and equipment pass muster. It's the Umpire's job to catch and report players guilty of uniform and equipment rules violations, like Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe's Hall of Fame protest.
On the field, the Umpire is responsible for spotting and assessing line play penalties: holding, illegal blocks, illegal contact, illegal hands to the face, etc. They also count the number of offensive players on the field.
The Umpire used to stand behind the linebackers, but was frequently put in harm's way—even used as an obstacle in designed pick plays.
In 2010, the NFL moved Umpires from behind the defensive front seven to behind the offensive backfield; this positioning makes them safer and allows them to see holding better, but makes it harder to correctly spot the ball on short runs and passes, as they're allowed to.
FOX officiating analyst Mike Pereira wrote this positioning change may have prevented the Umpire of the Detroit Lions-Houston Texans Thanksgiving game from having a view of Justin Forsett's obvious fall to the ground.
It's for this reason the NFL moves officials back to their old spot for the last two minutes of the first half, the last five minutes of the second half, or whenever the offense is within five yards of the end zone.
The Head Linesman does exactly what you think he might: man a line.
The Head Linesman stands at the visitor's end of the line of scrimmage and looks down it, having primary responsibility for all offsides, encroachment, false start and other alignment, neutral-zone and pre-snap penalties.
During the play, the Head Linesman assumes responsibility for plays that end near their sideline, such as in-bounds/out-of-bounds calls.
The Head Linesman is also responsible for managing and coordinating the "chain gang," and carries a chain clamp that anchors one end of the first-down chains during a measurement. It's the Head Linesman's job to make sure the chain is properly spotted and anchored during a measurement.
The Line Judge is the home-sideline counterpart of the Head Linesman. Just like the Head Linesman, the Line Judge is looking down the line of scrimmage and watching for pre-snap, neutral zone and alignment penalties. Like the Head Linesman, the Line Judge assumes responsibility for plays that happen on or near his sideline within five to seven yards of the line of scrimmage.
However, the Line Judge is also responsible for keeping the manual game time. In the NFL, the official time is literally whatever the scoreboard says it is—but the line judge must also keep time manually and inform the Referee of discrepancies, and serve as a backup in case the scoreboard fails.
The Line Judge is responsible for keeping the players and coaches informed of how much time is left at specific intervals throughout the game. Players may also ask the Line Judge for an official time-remaining estimate.
Not sure what this field judge is looking at, here.
The Field Judge stands on on the same (home) sideline as the line judge, but 20 yards deep instead of along the line of scrimmage.
The Field Judge must count all defensive players at the time of the snap, to make sure there aren't too many. The Field Judge is also responsible for watching all of the eligible receivers on their side of the field, making complete/incomplete rulings, calling downfield penalties (such as pass interference or illegal man downfield) and spotting the ball in-bounds or out-of-bounds.
The Field Judge also works with the Back Judge to signal if field goals are good or no good.
Shannon Eastin, the first female to serve as an NFL official, working as a side judge.
The Side Judge has the same responsibilities as the Field Judge, just on the visitor's side of the field.
The Side Judge lines up 20 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, and is primarily ruling on the results of plays downfield: pass completions, fouls like pass interference, spotting the ball in- or out-of-bounds and whistling plays dead.
During field goal attempts, the Side Judge lines up parallel to the Umpire and serves as a second Umpire.
The Back Judge's top responsibility is watching over all kicks from scrimmage, including ruling on field goal attempts. The Back Judge is also in charge of timing breaks, between-quarter intermissions and halftime, and notifying teams when those breaks are nearly over.
During play, the Back Judge, positioned deep downfield behind the defensive secondary, has similar responsibilities to the field and side judge. The Back Judge makes all the downfield calls out of range of the other officials, including possession, completion and turnover calls.
Also, according to NFL rules, the Back Judge has the "absolute responsibility" to inform kickers and/or placekickers that the "kickoff" may be made by either placekick or dropkick.
Someday, I hope a kicker replies to a back judge, "Oh really? Cool, I had no idea!" then drop-kicks a kickoff.