It’s easy to spot officials on the field during an NFL game because they stand out with their black-and-white-striped uniforms. Unless you pay close attention to the NFL referees, however, there’s probably something about them that you don’t notice: They wear numbers just like the players.
So why do NFL referees have numbers and what do they mean? Does it make it easier to know which ref you’re yelling at when he makes a bad call? Not quite. Here’s what the numbers mean.
How many game officials are on the field?
There are seven officials on the field for each game.
The referee is in charge of the officiating crew and has the final say on all of the game’s rulings.
The umpire’s job is to observe the play on the line as well as blocks by the offensive line and the defenders’ attempts to avoid them. He’s looking for illegal blocks or holding penalties.
Also called the down judge, the head linesman stands at one end of the line of scrimmage and watches for pre-snap penalties, including offsides or encroachment.
The line judge stands on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage from the head linesman. He helps identify penalties that occur before the snap.
The field judge stands near the line judge and rules on pass interference, incomplete passes, and illegal blocks downfield.
The side judge has the same role as the field judge, but he stands on the opposite sideline near the head linesman.
The back judge covers the action in the middle of the field, between himself and the umpire. He looks for the same things as the field judge and side judge, with the added responsibility of calling delay-of-game penalties when the play clock expires.
How NFL referees work as a team
The NFL uses officiating crews who work together as a team during the regular season. Each crew is identified by the referee, who acts as the leader. The referee works with the same crew — barring injury or scheduling conflicts — throughout the season until the playoffs.
Then, the NFL selects what it considers to be its best officials to make “All-Star” officiating crews. The officials can huddle together when needed to decide a ruling on a play if there is a disagreement between officials.
Why do NFL referees wear numbers?
This brings us to the question of why referees and other game officials wear numbers on their uniforms. The answer, reports the LA Times, is as simple as it gets. The numbers are for identification purposes only.
There are 117 officials in the NFL, but their uniform numbers go up to 135. Unlike players, whose jersey numbers are determined by their positions, there is no rhyme or reason to the referee numbering system. As with the players, once an official is assigned a number he typically keeps the same one year in and year out. Swapping does occasionally happen.
For at least one retired official, a bond developed between him and the players who shared his number. Former referee Mike Carey wore No. 94 throughout his officiating career. He says he felt a special connection with players who also wore No. 94.
Throughout Carey’s career, the No. 94 group included stars like Charles Haley and DeMarcus Ware. Carey notes, “There was this bond that would form between me and whoever wore that number,” recalling he “would joke with players and say, ‘Make sure you represent this number well.'”
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