The New York Giants’ Kenny Phillips, like all NFL defensive backs, is used to performing his job with a lot of people paying very close attention, but the extra set of eyes that will watch him this weekend gives him pause.
The NFL will use an extra official — a crew of eight overall — in 12 preseason games this year, including the Giants’ preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, prompting Phillips to do what smart players do with all officials: wonder how they can work them to their advantage.
“Is it going to help us as far as them watching for leading with the helmet, or are they back there just watching for holding?” Phillips said. “I think it can be win-win. It may help us out if they’re watching receivers pushing off. Which they do a lot.”
The reason for this test run is obvious: Football has been transformed into a passing game, with innumerable multiple-receiver formations. The NFL decided to explore whether having more officials downfield would improve the accuracy of calls that frequently must be made on the move at high speed.
Last year the NFL used a deep judge — he will line up, as his title suggests, about 25 yards downfield, essentially staying behind the deepest receiver in a pass route — in eight preseason games. Coaches gave that limited experiment positive reviews, telling the officiating department that they did not find the additional official intrusive.
However, now the competition committee wants even more data and video before pondering the next step. The NFL, which typically deliberates at length before changing rules, most likely will take another year or two before considering whether to expand the officiating crew for regular-season and postseason games, said the committee’s chairman, Rich McKay.
The NFL last added an official, going to seven from six, in 1978, when the game was much more about 3 yards and a cloud of dust than the three-wide-receiver sets prevalent now. In 1978, the pass was used on 40.9 percent of all plays. The percentage was 53.4 percent last season.
“These receivers are bigger, faster, and the defensive backs are better and they have better coaching now,” said Carl Johnson, the NFL’s vice president for officiating. “They’re doing a really fine job of being creative in the passing game. This is one of the ways to keep up with the game.”
With the deep judge joining the back judge, the side judge and the field judge, there will be four officials arrayed across the defensive backfield. That creates three lanes between the officials, presumably making it easier for them to watch the play unfold. The deep judge’s position would change depending on the offensive formation. If the offense is in a five-wide receiver formation, the deep judge would line up in the defensive backfield, but shaded to the quarterback’s right, to focus on one of the slot receivers. If a bunch formation is lined up on the quarterback’s left side, the deep judge will shade toward that side, along with the back judge and field judge, leaving the side judge to focus on the lone receiver to the quarterback’s right.
“Some think we need that to deal with all of the multiple receiver formations we see in today’s game,” said John Mara, a Giants owner and member of the competition committee. “The pass interference call/non-call is so critical to the outcome of the game. Also, the deep judge can help with the catch/no-catch call on passes down the middle.”