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Playoff assignment is more than just making the grade

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The methodology of determining playoff assignments changed slightly when Dean Blandino was named vice president of officiating in 2013. It largely resembles the system previously in place. Rather than a straight 1-to-17 grade ranking, Blandino places the officials at each position into one of three tiers. Tier 1 is, for the lack of a better term, the championship level and Tier 3 are officials that do not get assignments.

The placement into a tier does have some basis in grades, but has the subjectivity to allow Blandino to consider intangibles, such as leadership, decisiveness, and managing the pace of game. “There are some things that I, as a supervisor, need to have the ability to look at for the overall picture of what makes a good official,” Blandino said in a 2013 interview.

The tiers generally align to the previous constructs of the assignment levels. For example, Tier 1 was a five-official group of the highest graded officials under the old system. Blandino could put four or six in that group depending on the qualifications he sees.

The procedure below is mostly re-posted from our reporting last year with some updated information. The league office confirmed to Football Zebras that the tier system is in effect for this year’s playoff, but did not elaborate on the minimum qualifications of playoff officials.

Playoff assignment procedure

First, to qualify for a playoff assignment, an official may not be in his first season and a referee may not be in his first season as referee for a playoff assignment. (This excludes 13 new members on the officiating staff and the two veterans who are first-year referees — Craig Wrolstad and Ronald Torbert.)

The Super Bowl assignment would be determined from the Tier 1 official. An official at each position in that tier that has not previously worked a Super Bowl will get first preference. However, if an official was graded at the top, and skipped over in this manner in the previous postseason, he will not be passed over again if he ranks first in the current season. The first preference must also meet other qualification factors.

For the referee, the minimum qualifications are as follows:

  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • 3 years as NFL referee
  • 1 playoff game as a referee

For his crewmates, the minimum criteria are:

  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • 1 career conference championship game or 3 playoff games in the previous 5 years

Also, an official cannot work consecutive Super Bowls. Terry McAulay apparently graded first in the two previous postseasons, since he got his third Super Bowl last year, while other Tier 1 referees with no Super Bowl assignments were denied. McAulay cannot work this year’s Super Bowl. This left 13 of the 17 referees qualified as we began the 2014 season.

The remaining Tier 1 officials are distributed to the Conference Championship round and, if necessary, to Divisional Playoffs. Conference Championship officials must have three years of seniority and a prior playoff assignment.

The Super Bowl crew will get divisional playoff assignments, although they won’t all be on the same crew. The Tier 2 officials fill in the remaining divisionals and then the wild cards.

Tier 3 officials do not get a playoff assignment, although it appears that they may receive assignments as alternate officials. There are indications from a few sources that placement in Tier 3 can lead to additional training and possible dismissal from the league.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

7 thoughts on “Playoff assignment is more than just making the grade

  1. Does it seem strange to anybody that Dean Blandino arranges the officials into tiers when he has zero on-field NFL officiating experience? Yes, I realize he has former officials as supervisors, and that he’s worked in the NFL Officiating office since the 1990s when he started as an intern. It just seems crazy to me that someone who’s never been on the field, never come close to working a Super Bowl as an official, is in charge of determining which guy will work the game. Mind you, the guys who are in these tiers have decades of officiating experience from kid level all the way to NFL, and they’re graded by someone who’s known about officiating from Park Avenue. It also bums me out a bit to know that the #1 rated guys are passed over sometimes in favor of guys who “haven’t gotten it” in the past – the SB is the biggest game and the best guy should be working. My friends in the NFL tell me Seeman could be super stern, but they found his grading system fair and an official’s system. Sorry for the rant, friends.

  2. I think it is IDEAL to have someone without on-field experience to determine post-season play. One, he doesn’t have to worry about offending (or supporting) former crew mates who are still working. Two, he sees the game more objectively as an observer as a “fan.” That is, he can watch the game as the people in the stands and on tv see the officials as a reflection of the league. Consequently, if Dean himself can be objective and have resolve, he can step on toes and ruffle feathers but telling officials “you didn’t have it this season.” Third, we have seen enough comments about nepotism and officials on the NFL field who need to go writeen on this web site, and hopefully someone like Dean can do that.

  3. Hope people noticed that Mike Carey has not worked a playoff game in the last few years, so obviously he was tier 3. I think he saw the ‘writing on the wall’ that his job was in jeopardy and that was the most likely reason why he suddenly ‘retired’ from the league to become the rules analyst at CBS.

  4. Pro Bowl is usually the most senior official at a position who did not receive a playoff spot that has not worked the Pro Bowl before. Depending on injuries sometimes a Pro Bowl official will also be an alternate during the playoffs. I like this new system because the difference between the top tier of officials may be one question on a rules exam. Also by giving a chance for new people to make it each year if they are in the top tier when the Carl Paganelli’s of the game retire you have officials who have been to the Super Bowl before. If an official is the top at his respective position two years in a row that does merit at least one Super Bowl appearance. I also believe that this playoff assignment procedure was agreed to in the CBA with the officials

  5. How did Simonette get a Super Bowl last season? 2 inadvertent whistles in 2013, and one in 2012. Oh, yea. he was promised the Super Bowl and a job college if he retired. Well, he got the job, and that conference is now known as the joke among D1 conferences as far as officiating is concerned; and he didn’t “retire.”

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