August 16, 2007

NFL Experimenting with Putting Umpire in Backfield

Don't be confused, you have been seeing the Umpire (U) in the offensive backfield this preseason. The NFL is conducting an experiment in Weeks 1 and 3 of the preseason to see if positioning the U next to the Referee (R) reduces the risk of injury to the U.

Under the traditional setup, the U sets up five yards behind the defensive line. The R stands 10-12 yards behind the QB. A Line Judge and Head Linesman (LJ and HL) cover each end of the line from the sideline to look for pre-snap violations, then release and move downfield with the play. The Field Judge (FJ) starts about 20 yards downfield from the LJ. The Side Judge (SJ) starts on the HL's side about 20 yards deep. The Back Judge (BJ) is the one who starts 25 yards deep in generally the middle of the field, favoring the TE's side. He will go further back if the defense is in an extreme prevent. Obviously, the three d-backfield positions are discretionary, in that it might make more sense to line up somewhat differently, especially if the defense is using Oakland's 2000-2001 "Sticks" defense on third on long.

Ice Bowl. Note the Umpire wears a white hat, which is only worn by the Referee in the NFL. In the CFL, only the Referee wears a black hat.
The experimental positioning puts the other six in the same spot, but puts the U parallel to the R in the offensive backfield. Normally the R watches the near lineman, FB, H-Back and TE for holding and watches the QB for roughing the passer. The U watches the three interior linemen and associated defensive lineman, and makes sure lineman do not release downfield too early on screen or pass plays.

The U's primary responsibility, however, is for ball placement in the two-minute mechanics. He always places the ball, but in the two-minute mechanics he is the one who must hustle the most and get the ball quickly and accurately spotted. The NFL has taken care of this by still putting the U in his normal spot during the two-minute drill and when the offense is inside the 5.

My biggest complaint, as pointed out by my co-blogger Brien, is that line action is only seen from one point of view, from behind the O-Line. Hands to the face can be more easily disguised behind a larger offensive lineman's body. Plus, the experiment creates a large sphere of uncovered space at about the linebacker level in the defensive backfield. According to NFL_Czar on FoxSports, this already cost the Rams a preseason TD. Frankly, we don't need two sets of eyes on the back of the offensive line.

This isn't the first time the experiment has been attempted. Apparently the NFL tried the same thing in the 2001 preseason. Why do I think they're throwing the officials a bone the year after a U gets hurt? I recall one relatively serious U injury last year.

2 Responses:

Brien said...

Yeah, I just don't see how one or two umpires getting knocked down justifies compromising the number of viewpoints on a particular play that the officiating crew gets. I don't worry about hands to the face as much as a fumble at the line of scrimmage. With the U in the backfield, you're counting on the back judge to see the upfield angle on the play. Umpires are tough, and they almost always get out of the way of the ball or the play.

J-Red said...

Plus, that U has been standing there for the entire career of all 22 players on the field. He's as much a part of the field as the sideline to them. It's not like college and high school hide the umpire in the backfield.

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