The NFL has made some officiating changes during the offseason and a former Atlanta Falcons player turned official is at the center of one big change. Phil McKinnely will be one of the first NFL officials to assume the new and improved “down judge” title. That doesn’t mean what you think it means. It doesn’t mean he’s especially hip, cool, or “with it.” McKinnely may get jiggy with it in his spare time, but his new title has nothing to do with that. “Down judge” is basically the NFL’s new, gender-neutral name for the “head linesman.” It’s a significant move by the NFL in that there are now two female NFL officials, Sarah Thomas (hired in 2015) and Terri Valenti (recently hired replay official).
So what will the down judge do? The exact same thing the head linesman did. First, watch for encroachment and offsides penalties. Second, keep track of down and distance. Third, watch sideline plays on the side of the field opposite the press box. Interestingly McKinnely is one of two current NFL officials that actually played football professionally.
Don’t remember McKinnely? Here’s a quick history lesson: he played offensive tackle for the Falcons between 1976 and 1980. The Falcons picked the UCLA alum in the 9th round of the 1976 NFL Draft. This was one year after the Falcons drafted Steve Bartkowski. Why does that matter? Bartkowski went to Cal, and McKinnely went to UCLA. If you’re unfamiliar with that rivalry, it’s real; I’ll leave it at that. They have played each other basically every year since forever. UCLA was a football powerhouse in the 1970s (Cal was just average) and one can imagine there was some healthy smack talk exchanged.
McKinnely wasn’t an essential cog in the wheel for the Falcons, just a reliable reserve. He only started 4 games but played in a total of 53 games for the Falcons over five seasons. McKinnely is 6’4, but at just 250 pounds, his playing weight was paltry compared to what we see today.