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2018 postseasonHow the NFL determines the mixed crews for the playoffs

How the NFL determines the mixed crews for the playoffs

The process of assigning playoff officials has been largely a secret, with some of the details not even shared with officials. However, there is a general framework that has been established by the league and the officials’ union. 

Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron determines the assignments by placing officials in a three-tier ranking. Tier 1 is a championship level; Tier 2 is a qualified level; and Tier 3 officials do not get assignments. Although the placement into a tier is largely based on grades, it has the subjectivity to allow Riveron to consider intangibles, such as leadership, decisiveness, and managing the pace of game. The top tier is generally limited to 4 to 6 officials at each position.

There are no all-star crews in the first two rounds of the playoffs; mixed crews is a more accurate term. The crews are assigned by individual merit, rather than a crew score, to prevent lower-graded officials from getting unearned assignments or negatively affecting superior crewmates. This provision is included in the collective bargaining agreement with the officials union signed in 2012.

At the Conference Championship and Super Bowl level, those officials are pulled from Tier 1, and that is when the all-star label is applicable.

Playoff assignment procedure

First, to qualify for any postseason assignment, an official may not be in the first season or the first season as referee. There are 7 first-year officials (1 line judge, 4 field judges, 1 side judge, and 1 back judge) and 4 new referees this year. There are 8 officials in their second season who are now playoff eligible.

Injuries can also be a factor, particularly for late-season injuries or prolonged absences earlier in the season.

Past practice is that an official will only get one on-field assignment in the postseason or the Pro Bowl, except that the Super Bowl crew also works the Divisional Playoffs. This changed in 2017, as there were some officials that worked both the Wild Card round and a Conference Championship game; the last time this occurred was in 2004. There is a strong indication that most Conference Championship officials this year will have also worked a Wild Card game.

Super Bowl

The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials, but these minimum qualifications apply:

Referee Other positions
  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • 3 years as NFL referee
  • 1 postseason game as a referee in a previous season
  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • Postseason experience of either:
    • 1 career conference championship game
    • 3 playoff games in the previous 5 years

Referee Brad Allen and side judges Brad Freeman, Eugene Hall, and Scott Novak are in their first year of Super Bowl eligibility. (Novak has worked a playoff game in every eligible season, and qualifies under the 3-in-5 criteria above.) John Hussey regained eligibility as a referee, and down judge Phil McKinnely has regained his eligibility by the 3-in-5.

The official selected at each position for the Super Bowl is not necessarily the top ranked official. An official at each position in that tier that has not previously worked a Super Bowl usually will get first preference. However, if an official was graded at the top in the previous postseason, and skipped over to award a first preference, that official will not be skipped again if he or she ranks first in the current season. The first preference must also meet the qualification factors in the table above.

Also, an official cannot work consecutive Super Bowls, which excludes the 6 remaining members of the Super Bowl LII crew. (Referee Gene Steratore retired.)

In total, the number of qualified officials by position are 13 referees, 10 umpires, 8 down judges, 12 line judges, 5 field judges, 9 side judges, and 10 back judges.

Conference Championships

The remaining Tier 1 officials are distributed to the Conference Championship round and, if necessary, to the Divisional Playoffs. Conference Championship officials, including the referee, must have 3 years of seniority and a prior playoff assignment. This year, we are looking at the Wild Card officials for potential Conference Championship officials, as there were a number of double-ups last season, the first since 2004.

Those who are now qualified for the Conference Championship this year include down judge Jerrod Phillips, line judge Walt Coleman IV, and field judge Dale Shaw.

In addition to the rookie officials that are disqualified from any postseason assignment, there are 3 umpires, 5 down judges, 1 line judge, 4 field judges, and 2 side judges that are not eligible for the Conference Championship.

Divisional and Wild Card Playoffs

First, the Super Bowl crew will get Divisional Playoff assignments, although they won’t all be on the same crew.

The remaining three positions for the Divisional Playoffs will go first to Tier 1 officials not in the Conference Championship. (Theoretically, there will be a second Super Bowl official in the mix for each position if there is a major controversy or injury.) The Tier 2 officials fill in the remaining divisionals and then the wild cards. An official working the Wild Card round could be ranked as low as 10th, and ranked lower depending on the number of officials at the position that are not playoff eligible. In 2017, there apparently were not enough Tier 2 officials remaining, so some officials did get two playoff assignments.

Tier 3 officials do not get a playoff assignment. Multiple officiating sources have indicated that three years in the low tier can cause an official to be dismissed.

Pro Bowl

The Pro Bowl is assigned to the most senior member at each position not working a playoff game who also has not worked a Pro Bowl. On last check, the league did not count Pro Bowls prior to 2001 nor those not played in Honolulu in determining the assignment. Since the Pro Bowl will again be played in Orlando this season, this might be factored differently than in the past.

There are exceptions to award this assignment to a retiring official, even if they qualify for a playoff game. This would remove them from on-field assignments, and moving up the next qualified official in the postseason assignments. The officials’ union will make recommendations to the officiating office for these honorary assignments.

Alternate officials and replay

First-year officials can qualify for alternate assignments. Tier 3 officials do not even get alternate assignments. Super Bowl alternates typically have an on-field playoff assignment earlier in the playoffs, and depending on the number of Tier 1 and 2 officials, some may work as both an alternate and on the field in different rounds.

In the playoff and championship games, there are three alternate officials, which usually fall into one of these three groups: referee/umpire, line officials, and deep officials. The Super Bowl has five alternates: a referee, a umpire, a short wing (head linesman or line judge), a deep wing (side judge or field judge), and a back judge. In the 2017 season, no umpires were assigned alternates, except for the Super Bowl, presumably to ensure every game has a backup white hat. It is unclear if that will hold in 2018.

Alternate officials generally assist the crew on the sideline in various game administration roles. For example, one is assigned as a replay field communicator and another works as the coordinator of the kicking ball supply.

Replay officials and replay assistants are graded separately, but, as long as there are no other disqualifying factors or adverse performance marks, they are generally paired with their regular season referee. The replay booth communicator and the clock operators who work locally during the regular season are assigned from another city, typically one from the other conference. The chain crew is the same from the regular season.

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)

2 thoughts on “How the NFL determines the mixed crews for the playoffs

  1. Good informative article.. But the tier level is ridiculous. Two of the worst officiated games that I have ever seen, Anderson’s crew on the Dallas-Saints game, and Blakemans crew on week 14’s dallass-eagles game, with both games affecting the playoffs: both officiating crews are officiating games this week in the playoffs. So, those officiating crews weren’t deemed tier 3, actually just the opposite, they got chosen as better officials than their officiating peers. Anderson graduated from Texas, so he shouldn’t be officiating Dalass home games anyway. Both of the dalass games mentioned, allowed dalass to win their division. If those games were officiated better, dalass would’ve lost both and not be in the playoffs.

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