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.
The league will continue to use a tier system in order to assign officials for postseason games. Sources have told Football Zebras that, starting in the 2020-21 postseason, a five-tier system was employed, replacing the previous three-tier system. While the basis of the tiers remains the same — championship level officials, playoff qualified officials, and not playoff qualified — language has been expanded across five levels.
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, and was kept in the 2019 collective bargaining agreement.
As Tier 1 officials are assigned to the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, those crews can be more accurately referred to as all-star crews.
Playoff assignment procedure
In order to qualify for any postseason assignment, an official must not be in their first season or their first season as referee. Line judge Maia Chaka is the only first-year official this season, and there are no new referees, thus making Chaka the only playoff-ineligible official on the roster. There are 11 second-year officials, as well as second-year referee Land Clark, who are now playoff eligible.
The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials, but these minimum qualifications apply:
As part of the new five-tier assignment system, Super Bowl eligibility qualifications for non-referees have changed slightly. For all non-referees who meet the five-year tenure requirement, but have not worked a Conference Championship game, three playoff-qualifying seasons in the previous five years will count as qualified for the Super Bowl. Previously, an official needed to officiate three postseason games on the field in this five year span to be eligible. Now, alternate assignments and injured officials who qualified but were unable to officiate due to their injury will be counted in the 3-of-5 requirement.
In Super Bowl LV, down judge Sarah Thomas and field judge James Coleman were, in fact, eligible to work that game due to this change in the eligibility requirements. Coleman was injured and could not officiate in the playoffs in 2015, and Thomas was injured in 2016. They additionally had enough alternate assignments to make them eligible.
This season, umpire Mark Pellis, field judge John Jenkins, and back judge Rich Martinez are the only officials who are eligible to officiate the Super Bowl specifically under this new provision. However, at the time of publication, all three of these officials have been assigned to the 2021 Wild Card Playoff round, and are out of contention for Super Bowl LVI assignments.
3 referees and 5 non-referees are qualified for the Super Bowl for the first time this season.
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 at least 3 years of experience and a prior playoff assignment.
13 officials are now qualified for a Conference Championship game for the first time this season.
Divisional and Wild Card Playoffs
First, the Super Bowl crew will get Divisional Playoff assignments, although they necessarily 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. The officials remaining in playoff-qualified tiers fill in the remaining Divisional Playoffs and then the Wild Card Playoffs.
Typically, a second Super Bowl official at each position is selected in the event of an injury or major controversy in the Divisional Round. As scheduling challenges due to covid-19 continue, it is likely that there will be multiple backups at each position in the event of an unexpected need to isolate or quarantine.
Lowest tier officials do not get a playoff assignment, and three years in this tier can cause an official to be dismissed.