As recognizable as the gridiron, the NFL Zebras are an essential part of any gameplay. But the art of refereeing has come a long way since the early days of white coats and black bow ties. Without them, football would be a dramatically different game.
In just under a century, the discipline has gone from strength to strength, helping to develop the speed and needs of the modern game.
Today, the NFL has 122 officials who face weekly evaluations from the Officiating Department. Each referee sees around 154 plays per game and has a call accuracy rate of 97 percent.
How did they get to where they are? Read on for the full story of the NFL Zebras and a comprehensive history of NFL Officiating.
A Man Named Shorty
Refereeing as we understand it today can be pinpointed to a specific year: 1938.
Until that point, there were four officials who held any position on the field. They often changed role week on week depending on need.
However, 1938 was the first year where referees were trained and given a designated position. This change of layout created specialists in the field, as well as establishing consistency that can be felt across all games.
1938 was also the year that the league hired Hugh “Shorty” Ray. His introduction to the NFL as a technical advisor changed football refereeing forever.
A passionate and dedicated football fan, Shorty is responsible for overhauling the refereeing rulebook and working out simple steps to make the game faster, more dynamic, and safer.
Shorty Ray was passionate about ensuring that referees were experts in the rules, and dedicated his time to visiting training camps to educate coaches and players on the rules.
In 1966, ten years after he passed, Ray became the first and only officiating figure admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The McNally Era
Art McNally was named the NFL supervisor of officials in 1968 and held the role until 1991. A former marine, McNally had a reputation for officiating excellence and improving the standing of referees in the game.
McNally introduced the grading system for officials – a way to grade an official’s performance – as a way to improve the referee’s calls and boost the integrity of the game.
McNally also brought in the habit of performance reviews to be held weekly and demanded the most from his officials. He also embraced the advent of technology, which was first introduced in 1975 when referees were first kitted out with wireless microphones.
The advent of this technology helped fans on television see and understand more of why calls were made. This added to the entertainment value for fans, as well reinforcing the integrity of the game by making everything transparent.
The Modern Era of NFL Refereeing
In 1991, McNally passed the torch to veteran referee Jerry Seeman. It was Seeman who introduced McNally’s dream of a command center for officials.
The early 90s command center had over half a million dollars of cutting-edge technology, including the ability to streamline video reviews.
However, Seeman didn’t rely only on technology. He was adamant that refereeing crews should be physically fit, and so he introduced physical exams and stress tests. Each official also had to take part in long-distance runs and individual weight goals.
In 1999, Seeman reintroduced instant replay to help referees make their calls. With a new streamlined system, the ability to have replays was seen as an essential tool of the referees.
In 2014, the NFL opened the Art McNally GameDay Central (AMGC), at the league HQ in New York. With 89 monitors, 16 replay stations, and NFL Vision software, any contested calls could be reviewed efficiently.
The 2013-2017 head of officiating, Dean Blandino, headed up the launch to the technologically advanced officiating system we recognize today. The consistency of every call was continued.
However, as of 2018, this consistency was cemented. With Alberto Riveron at the helm, all final replay decisions come from himself or a senior member of the officiating department. This was a conscious step that Riveron has taken in order to ensure the final calls.
Ultimately, the role of an NFL official has stayed the same. While performing under immense pressure, the officials still carry with them the spirit of McNally – an attempt to improve a game that the officials love just as much as any fan.