Back judges are often undervalued in a crew of five. Perhaps that stems from the many prep teams that run the ball much more often than pass it. Additionally, the deep official frequently takes on a “fail safe” role and only appears to be active on long gains from scrimmage and punts. We know that is far from the truth. The back judge should serve as the crew’s chief dead-ball official and is, in effect, the “referee” of the defense. There are rules and techniques which are of particular importance to the back judge.
Unless otherwise noted, the material applies to both NFHS and NCAA rules. For more information, consider Referee‘s in-depth examination of every aspect of working deep.
The back judge has a general responsibility after most plays and specific responsibilities on some plays. After a routine play that ends between the numbers, the back judge should gently close in (10 yards is sufficient) keeping all 22 players in view. In most games on most plays he won’t need to do anything specific. If he observes opponents lingering he should move in their direction. If he observes a prolonged conversation, he needs to get close enough to hear what is being said and if it’s suspicious, he should watch for those two players during the game. Such a presence can effectively serve as a deterrent to unsportsmanlike acts; if it doesn’t, there will be a witness on hand to deal appropriately with whatever happens.
The biggest distractor to thorough dead-ball officiating is chasing the ball. Players should be encouraged to get the ball. On long incomplete passes, the ball should be thrown to the sideline and a new ball brought in. If the play ends with a player in the opponent’s bench, the back judge should be there, also entering the bench area if necessary while the wing official holds the spot and watches from the sideline.
Pass interference restrictions apply only beyond the neutral zone and only if a legal forward pass crosses the neutral zone. There are a multitude of factors which have to be considered before calling a foul. Those include, but are not limited to, the territorial rights of both receiver and defender — they each have a right to the ball and whether or not the pass is catchable (NCAA only).
The back judge has a very important task once a flag is thrown downfield. He must immediately get together with all officials that had a view of the action and compare notes. There may be only one flag because only one official could have seen the illegal act, perhaps an arm bar. On the other hand, perhaps two officials saw exactly the same thing and one passed on it. If so, why? If there are two flags on the play, the conversation should be shorter provided both officials had the same foul.
It’s not all about pass interference for the back judge. He must not only watch for illegal blocks, but also legal blocks at the wrong time. The blocking technique by or on eligible receiver downfield may be legal, but result in a foul. When an eligible receiver goes downfield during a play on which a forward pass crosses the neutral zone, he may not block until the pass has been touched (NFHS 7-5-9a; NCAA 7-3-9b)
The defender may, however, treat the receiver as a potential blocker and use unlocked arms to ward him off before a pass is thrown. If the receiver is not attempting to block or has gone past or is moving away from the defender, the defender may not initiate contact. A guideline is to allow contact until the receiver occupies the same yardline as the defender or until the opponent cannot possibly block him. Continuous contact is illegal (NFHS 9-2-3d; NCAA 9-3-4c).
On punts, the back judge is the key official. The main responsibility for the receiving team’s opportunity to catch the kick is his. The rules differ slightly depending on whether or not a fair catch signal is given.
While any scrimmage kick is in flight beyond the neutral zone and a team R player is in position to catch the ball, no team K player may touch the ball before it has touched a receiver. The receiver must be given an unhindered opportunity to catch the kick, which means the kicking team must stay out of the path between the receiver and the spot where the ball is coming down. The receiver’s rights exist whether or not he signals for a fair catch. The key difference between the codes is in NCAA interference occurs if a member of the kicking team enters the area one yard in front of the receiver and within the width of his shoulders. In NFHS play, interference is purely a judgment call and no area is specified (NFHS 6-5-6; NCAA 6-4-1b).
Additionally, any receiver may signal for a fair catch while the kick is in flight. That signal gives him protection from contact in exchange for forfeiting the right of his team to advance the ball.
A fair catch begins with a valid fair catch signal, which is the extending and lateral waving of one arm, clearly above the head, by any member of the receiving team. NFHS specifies at full arms’ length and NCAA stipulates more than one wave. The codes differ on what constitutes an invalid signal. In NFHS, an invalid signal is any signal by team R that does not meet the requirements of a valid signal or is given after a kick has touched the ground or a receiver, but before the kick is caught or recovered. In NCAA, an invalid signal is simply any signal that does not meet the requirements of a valid signal (NFHS 2-9-3 through 5; NCAA 2-7-2 through 4).
Other examples of invalid signals include a limp wave, partially extending and waving one hand in front of the face or chest, and fully extending and laterally waving both hands above the head. When a receiver shades his eyes during a kick, he must do so with a bent arm and without waving so it cannot be interpreted as an invalid signal.
Only the receiver who gives a valid signal is afforded protection. If, after a receiver signals, a catch is made by a teammate, it is not a fair catch, but the ball becomes dead. That also applies if the signal is not valid. Contacting a receiver who has given an invalid (NCAA: invalid or illegal) signal is not a foul unless the contact is judged to be unnecessary roughness or some other type of personal foul.