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Playoffs_10_rgbWith one round of the playoffs in the books and the second round assignments trickling out, it seems that we are, again, grasping at the true qualification criteria for playoff officials.

In September, USA Today reporter Jarrett Bell interviewed the vice-president of officiating Dean Blandino, who revealed his process for evaluating officials for postseason assignments:

We’ve tried to get the word “grading” out of our vocabulary … Sometimes [officials] tend to get so caught up in the grades, they lose sight of what we want them to say: “This is an incorrect call, and here’s what you can do better,” rather than, “I got a downgrade. Now I’m just worried about fighting that downgrade.”

Blandino is going to use a tiered system that groups four to six officials in the top tier, and receive the more prestigious assignments; a middle tier that includes the remaining playoff-eligible officials; and a bottom tier of officials that do not receive a postseason assignment.

While the performance grades still have to be involved to a large degree, Blandino reserves the right to exercise his own discretion in determining the tiers. “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.

The Bell article is the only indication of the assignment procedure under Blandino. Football Zebras asked the league office if the reported playoff criteria from last season is largely still intact under this new procedure, however the league responded, “We will take a pass on commenting on this for the record.”

We asked for a comment from the NFL Referees Association — the officials’ union — on the apparent shift in playoff assignment procedure after Bell’s article was published. Executive director Jim Quirk Sr. responded to our request in an e-mail, saying, “Sorry, I don’t read USA Today. Comments about performance evaluations for game officials are a confidential matter and not appropriate for discussion in the media.”

Quirk’s response is a subtle reference to the Football Zebras special report which questioned the assignment of the Super Bowl officials based on statements from former and current NFL officials. Those sources were kept anonymous in exchange for more detailed information, and all are members or alumni members of the NFLRA.

Playoff criteria revisited

Assuming that the previously released playoff criteria is in effect, the playoff assignments procedure would only need to be modified slightly to fit the new tier system. Some of these criteria are embedded in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLRA, and therefore cannot be fundamentally altered.

First, the Super Bowl assignment would be determined from the Tier 1 officials. The assignment does not automatically go to the top officials, rather, the highest ranked official at each position in that tier that has not previously worked a Super Bowl will get first preference. However, if an official was skipped over in this manner in the previous postseason, he will not be passed over again if he ranks first. 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. All referees meet the minimum qualifications for the Super Bowl (with the exception of Jerome Boger who cannot repeat), but not all of the rest of the officials are qualified.

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. This excludes four officials, none of whom are referees.

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, except that an official may not be in his first season and a referee may not be in his first season as referee. (This excludes first-year back judge Dale Shaw.)

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.