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2015 Postseason

Tier system sets referee assignments for playoffs




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; Tier 2 is a qualified level; and Tier 3 are officials that do not get assignments.

The placement into a tier is largely based on 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.


Updated post for 2016 season: Postseason assignments use mixed crews, not all-star crews


The tiers generally align to the previous constructs of the assignment levels from 2012 and before. 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.

Playoff referees are assigned individually to mixed crews in the postseason. The term all-star crews is not really applicable until the Conference Championship games. Crews were previously assigned as a whole unit (with an occasional substitution to promote or demote some officials), but this practice was ended by the most recent collective bargaining agreement with the officials. This prevents lower-graded officials from either riding the coat-tails of a good crew or to negatively affecting superior crewmates.

The procedure below is mostly re-posted from our reporting last year with some updated information.

Playoff assignment procedure

First, to qualify for any playoff assignment, an official may not be in his first season and a referee may not be in his first season as referee. (This excludes 10 new members on the officiating staff and veteran John Hussey, a first-year referee.) There are 13 officials who became eligible, as well as two referees — Craig Wrolstad and Ron Torbert.

Super Bowl. The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials. 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 in the previous postseason, and skipped over to award a first preference, he will not be skipped 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, which excludes Bill Vinovich this year. This leaves 12 of the 17 referees qualified for the Super Bowl as we began the 2015 season.

Conference Championship. 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.

Divisional and Wild Card Playoffs. 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. An official working the Wild Card round will be ranked as low as 10th out of 17, and ranked lower depending on the number of officials at the position that are not playoff eligible.

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 Hawaii-based Pro Bowl. There are exceptions to award this assignment to a retiring official, even if they qualify for an outdoor playoff game in Minnesota.

Alternate officials. Alternate officials have been assigned differently than in past years. First-year officials and first-year referees can qualify for alternate assignments. It seems that Tier 3 officials do not even get alternate assignments, as the 2014 season had some officials getting two alternates and some getting an on-field and an alternate assignment. Super Bowl alternates typically have an on-field playoff assignment earlier in the playoffs. 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: referee, umpire, line officials, deep wings, and back judge.

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)

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