A primer on the duties of a 7-man officiating crew

Ordering a high school football officiating crew is an expensive, but necessary, proposition.

Every certified official costs $90 per game. A registered official’s rate is $65. Then add another $15 to the fee of a referee, who serves as the crew chief (the white cap).

That’s not counting a clock operator and a play clock operator.

So it’s quite common that an athletic director will ask for a five-man, on-field crew rather than the full complement of seven officials.

But, while shaving two officials off the crew may save a few Alexander Hamiltons, fewer eyes also means less coverage of the field.

“Coaches expressed some concerns about us going to seven men,” noted veteran referee and banking executive, Marc Gervais, who serves as president of the Greater New Orleans Football Officials Association. “The concern was that they thought there would be more flags thrown
because of more sets of eyes watching.

“But we’ve proven there are less because there are more (officials) able to see all the action that would not be possible for a five-man crew, who are concerned about spotting the ball.”

Specific duties
Every man wearing vertical stripes has an area of responsibility. And not everyone has his eyes on the football.

Once the play begins, the officials follow a four-part sequence: snap, tackle, key and zone.

But before the play gets under way the officials have a pre-snap routine.

The referee and umpire (note positions on the above chart) will count the number of offensive players. The deep officials, namely back judge and side judge, will count the defensive players. They acknowledge each other by holding a fist extended. If one taps his hat, they will quickly count again because one may have thought he saw 12 players in formation.

The two wing officials (head linesman, lined up in front of the down marker, and the line judge) are looking down the scrimmage line for a possible false start or encroachment.

They then observe the tackles to read run or pass. If the play is a run, the official covering the runner will watch the blocking ahead of him. If the play is away from him, the wing official will look for action taking place behind the referee and umpire.

The umpire is looking directly at the center to be sure he executes a legal snap. He is also watching the guards on either side. The referee is watching the quarterback.

Once the ball is snapped, the officials’ four-part sequence begins.

“The referee will look at the tackles because they will give us a good indication that the play will be a run or a pass,” Gervais said. “If the tackles block up, it will generally be a passing play. If they block down, it will be a run.”

When the umpire reads run, his coverage depends on whether the play is between or outside the tackles. If the play is between the tackles, the umpire focuses on the point of attack in front or around the runner and what’s going on in the interior line.

On plays outside the tackles, his key is to watch the flow of the play to observe action on the back side of the flow and blocks developing at the second level. The umpire is specifically looking for holding, chop blocks and other illegal blocks.

Keys to successful calls
Every official will have certain keys to watch. The back judge and deep sideline officials will generally watch the widest eligible receivers.

“There may be trips (three receivers) or just a single receiver to one side and an eligible tight end. All of those formations are the responsibility of the wing guys (head linesman and line judge on the opposite side). And they have to know who and where their keys are,” Gervais pointed out.

The keys are the players officials look for because they will direct the result of a play.

“So when you have 22 players and seven officials on the field, you’re reducing the number of players you have to watch and you can concentrate on your keys. That’s the advantage of a seven-man crew,” he added.

The wing officials’ keys may be a back out of the backfield coming from multiple official variations. They are alert for illegal blocks, crack-back blocks and holding.

The back judge assists the umpire by observing second-level blocking. And he has to be ready to take over when there is a cutback or break-away run. When a ball carrier makes a long run, the back judge has to be at the goal line before the runner reaches it.

When an official realizes that the ball is away from his particular key, the official goes to zone coverage.

“When officials look at everything in their cone of vision, we will have an overlapping area covered,” Gervais said.

“What most spectators don’t realize, unless they have officiated before, is that although you have a key, your key could switch. Sometimes they may overlap zones, and there will be multiple flags because more than one official is observing that zone,” Gervais pointed out.

On passing formations when there are multiple eligible receivers in one zone, it is vital that the deep officials be alert.

“Everyone is running routes and crossing patterns to one side, so you can imagine for the wing and deep officials watching these high school players running pro-style sets and passing more, the situation could get complicated for those officials quickly,” Gervais said.

The ref’s responsibility
The white cap’s primary keys are the quarterback and point of attack. If the quarterback drops back, the referee turns his attention, not to the quarterback, but to potential threats from the defense.

“As a referee, I look for the best athlete on the defense, usually from the blind side, that’s going to get to the quarterback most of the time,” Gervais said. “If the quarterback is tackled, I want to make sure it’s a clean hit.”

When a pocket of blockers is collapsing, the referee is looking for a threat breaking through it. If the threat gets to the quarterback, he wants to be sure the hit is clean and not a blow to the head.

“We have a term we use often: ‘Don’t officiate air.’ When the quarterback has the ball and is doing nothing with it, there’s nothing to watch. Watch the defensive guys who may get to him.”

Gervais said if the quarterback is hit, the referee is looking to see that it is a clean sack or roughing the passer.

“The quarterback has to be in the act of passing for it to be roughing the passer. He can’t be a runner.”

Officials are taught to look at action away from the ball that is not in an individual’s area of primary responsibility.

“We train new officials that there are seven men on the field and one football,” Gervais said. So officials know to look at what’s going on away from the ball.

“They know not to look at the ball because that is the time when something bad usually happens away from the ball, like late hits and other unnecessary things,” Gervais said.

Every call an official makes has to fit into a category. It has to have certain elements in it in order to rise to the level of a foul.

“Just because players bump into each other while running down the field doesn’t constitute pass interference.

“Just because someone actually takes someone down on the line of scrimmage, by definition it may be considered a hold, but did it have an impact on the play at the point of attack?

“We don’t want to keep calling fouls to slow down the game. Coaches don’t want that and neither do players, officials or spectators. A situation may look ugly to coaches or fans, but if the play was to the right and the hold was on the left side of the field, it did not influence or affect the outcome,” Gervais said.

From the officials’ bible
When a question comes up regarding whether the quarterback passed or fumbled the ball, it will be ruled a fumble.

If there is a question whether a ball carrier fumbled the ball or was down, it will be ruled a fumble.

Formations during the execution of a trick or unusual play have the highest degree of scrutiny and should be ruled completely legal.

And when in question, a quick or abrupt movement by a center or quarterback will always be a false start.

Ron Brocato can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  

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