NFL History of Officiating: A Look at How the Game has Changed

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Officiating crews from professional football’s earliest days wouldn’t be recognizable to today’s fans — and not just because of their attire (white dress shirts, black bow ties) and their use of horns, rather than flags, to call penalties.

The level of professionalism would be just as unfamiliar. Undertrained, ill-equipped and loosely supervised, the officials contributed to the sluggish, low-scoring, rough-and-tumble games the NFL produced in its infancy.

For professional football to grow and improve, the quality of officiating needed to get dramatically better. New rules designed to make the game fairer, safer and more entertaining would be of no use without officials who could properly and consistently enforce them.

Fortunately for the game and its fans, the league found visionary and demanding leaders who helped officiating evolve from those humble beginnings to the highly trained, rigorously evaluated and technologically savvy stewards of the game we know today. That process began in earnest in the late 1930s.


The year 1938 would be a turning point for NFL officiating for two reasons: Officials were assigned to dedicated positions on officiating crews, and the league hired a man who would forever change the game.

Until that year, an official may have worked at a different position on a crew from week to week. In 1938, the league instituted a new system in which each member of the four-man unit was permanently assigned to one specific position.

This established consistency from game to game and created specialists at each position on the field. In the ensuing decades, the crew continued to evolve as the league added three more positions to keep up with changes in the game (and it’s currently considering adding one more as the speed of the game continues to increase).

The NFL’s officiating crews have grown along with the game. See how the league got to today’s seven-person crew, with the addition of an eighth official under consideration.



  • IN 1929:

    The league began in the early 1920s with a three-man officiating crew: the referee, the umpire and the linesman.

    In 1929, a fourth position — the field judge — is added; this official rules on pass interference and illegal blocks.





The second turning point occurred when the league hired Hugh “Shorty” Ray, a 5-foot-6, 136-pound innovator who became a titan of the game.

Before he joined the NFL, Ray was working with a national high school football association to develop a rulebook specific to high school football. The Highland Park, Ill., native — who had decades of experience as a three-sport official — already had helped to transform officiating in the Chicago area with the Chicago Schools Athletic Officials Association.

Conscious of the shortcomings of the state of officiating crews and brimming with ideas for improvement, Ray rewrote the nation’s high school football rules. He organized clinics across the country to teach his rulebook and officiating system and demanded that his officials pass rigorous rules exams.

Ray also is credited with introducing an officiating “play situation book” to the NFL — a guide to prepare officials for every possible scenario during a football game. The league continues to use a situation book today.

Ray was rethinking how the game was governed, officiated and played, and George Halas, the legendary owner and coach of the Chicago Bears, took notice. Halas recommended that the league hire Ray as a technical adviser in 1938. The game — and officiating — would never be the same.

“Getting the league to hire ‘Shorty’ Ray was my finest contribution to pro football.”

George Halas, Hall of Fame coach

Chicago Bears owner/head coach George Halas (left) and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell (right) shake hands with Hugh “Shorty” Ray in the 1950s.

Ray served as a technical adviser from 1938 to 1952, a period in which the NFL reached new heights of popularity. He routinely met with officials to improve their technique and demanded that they be experts on the rulebook. He also visited every team’s training camp to teach coaches and players about the streamlined rulebook and new points of emphasis, all with the goal of making football safer, faster and better.

Today’s Officiating Department takes similar steps to ensure that every official is an expert on the rulebook.

“He pounded the rules into his officials so that they could average 95 percent of a test at a coaching clinic on even the most difficult problems. Before that, they couldn’t reach that score — even with the book open at their elbow.”

Mark Duncan, NFL Supervisor of Officials, 1964–1968

In 1966, 10 years after his death, Ray became the first — and so far only — officiating figure to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Of course,” Ray said, “I’ve had very little to do with all this. Football is not one man’s game.”


Ray’s devotion to the game, demand for professionalism and innovative thinking elevated officiating to the level needed to improve the credibility of the NFL product. Nonetheless, more work would be needed to raise officiating to the level it has reached today.

Mark Duncan, a former San Francisco 49ers coach and future Seattle Seahawks assistant general manager, oversaw the Officiating Department from 1964 to 1968. He required officials to take yearly tests and attend preseason clinics, but it wasn’t until Art McNally assumed the head position that the level of officiating would truly blossom.

In 1968, McNally was named NFL supervisor of officials, a position he held until 1991. A longtime official from Philadelphia, he would become one of the key people in the Officiating Department’s transformation.

During McNally’s time with the league, his name became synonymous with officiating excellence. Under his leadership, the NFL’s Officiating Department developed its modern evaluation and grading system for officials — a critical component in improving proficiency and boosting the game’s integrity. He introduced the idea of weekly performance reviews and held his officials to strict standards.

When asked if an official in the right position on the field will make the right call nine out of 10 times, McNally responded: “Higher than nine times out of 10. It better be, or he’ll be out of the business. He won’t be around for long.”

McNally, a former Marine, showed his officials tough love but was confident in their ability to do their job the right way. “Overall, the caliber of our officiating is excellent,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1990. “I grade the films, eight hours a day, so I should know.”

The rigid, innovative and effective weekly evaluation system under McNally was as follows:

  • STEP 1

    McNally and his aides reviewed the game film and noted every foul that was called and the official who called it.

  • STEP 2

    The team graded each foul call on a seven-point scale, from poor (1) to excellent (7).

  • STEP 3

    McNally then looked for any plays in which a foul should have been called but no whistle was blown.

  • STEP 4

    In addition to each call or no-call, the team graded each official on mechanics and positioning.

McNally’s wasn’t the only evaluation; the referee, an NFL observer (watching from the stadium press box) and each team’s coach also submitted numerical grades to the Officiating Department. Once all the grades were filed, McNally condensed them into a single cohesive report — ready to send to the officiating crews each week.

McNally and his team were simply using a blank, white wall on which to project their film. But he envisioned something grander: a centralized officiating headquarters with even greater capabilities. His command center vision became a reality in the early 1990s.

McNally also recognized the importance of creating specialists at all seven officiating positions. He organized meetings by position to provide a chance for every crew member to discuss his specific challenges and solutions.

“Because of Art’s honesty, integrity, vast experience and dedication, no coach disregards what he has to say.”

Hall of Fame coach Don Shula

Technology — and the league’s use of it — also caused an evolution in officiating.

Referees were equipped with wireless microphones in 1975. The microphones allowed officials to explain on-field rulings to a much wider audience, and fans watching on television — along with those in the stands — got a sense of the officials’ personalities for the first time.

Colorful referees like Mason “Red” Cashion and Jerry Markbreit experienced unprecedented levels of fame and recognition. Anonymity had been viewed as a sign that the officials were doing something right, but now, every Sunday, Cashion’s famous “First down!” call was heard in living rooms across America.


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David Keech
Author: David Keech

David Keech is a math teacher in Wisconsin Rapids and public address announcer for Abbotsord High School. He officiates basketball, baseball, and softball in central Wisconsin. He has reported on amateur sports since 2011, known as 'KeechDaVoice.' David can be reached at [email protected]