So what, exactly, is the criteria for an official to qualify for the Super Bowl? The NFL asserts, “that criteria has not changed since at least 2007,” but based on our prior reporting and confirmation with two officials, the criteria is now a moving target.
We have always known the Super Bowl officials to be required to have a prior conference championship. A little-known provision also allowed an official at any position other than the referee to substitute three other playoff assignments from the past five years in place of the conference championship. The requirement for the referee to meet this elevated standard for the Super Bowl has been eliminated, although the league maintains it never existed.
We received the detail from the NFL through Michael Signora, the vice president of football communications. However, Signora also provided a bullet list of requirements to Pro Football Talk, which differed slightly from what we received. In context, we are covering officiating, so we are obviously interested in a detailed list of qualifications, and not an abbreviated rundown. The criteria provided to Football Zebras.com:
In order for an official at any position [except referee] to be eligible for the Super Bowl, he must have at least five years of NFL experience and either a conference championship game assignment or a playoff assignment in the Wild Card or Divisional round in three of the past five years.
The criteria for referees to be eligible for the Super Bowl is three years experience as a referee (and five years total) and playoff experience as a referee.
However, the criteria provided to Pro Football Talk show that the highest ranked official in the Top 5 of his position who has not yet worked the Super Bowl gets the assignment. An exception to this step prevents an official from being skipped over in consecutive years.
In this year’s playoffs, Terry McAulay and Bill Leavy ranked either second or third by virtue of their conference championship assignments. Because McAulay or Leavy have worked two Super Bowls each, neither one of them could qualify for a Super Bowl this year as long as someone as low as fifth had never worked the big game. It is possible that either one could have ranked first and still not gotten the Super Bowl assignment.
The Top-5/no-previous-assignment rule applies to all positions, not just the referee. Therefore, an fifth-year official seeing a few veteran officials at his position outranking him in accuracy grades will snatch a cheap Super Bowl assignment so long as he just makes sure he maintains fifth place. The incentive to achieve vanishes.
Because the rules for making the postseason officiating assignments had never been centrally published by the league, the rules are no better than an unmoderated Wikipedia entry. However, this year it is clear that the tough rules were effectively erased from the record.