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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.

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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)

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22 thoughts on “Tier system sets referee assignments for playoffs

  1. Now that there is a woman among NFL officials, isn’t it time to revise your writing style of exclusively using make pronouns?

  2. My predictions for referee tiers:

    Tier 1: Hochuli, Coleman, McAulay, Anderson
    Tier 2: Corrente, Cheffers, Parry, Blakeman, Wrolstad, Torbert, Allen, Hussey
    Tier 3: Morelli, Vinovich, Steratore, Boger, Triplette

  3. Thom, get over yourself. How far does ridiculous political correctness have to go? geez….bad enough that a different physical anatomy gets someONE hired over other someONES!

  4. Bagley you predictions are wrong on your Tier 3 referees for one Vinovich was last years Superbowl referee and Steratore is a Wild Card referee this year and did two consecutive Championship round games the last two years

  5. “There are exceptions to award this assignment to a retiring official, even if they qualify for an outdoor playoff game in Minnesota.”

    Is this hinting at a possible retirement from the crew of the SEA-MIN game this weekend?

  6. Sorry. I meant that an official might qualify for that Minnesota game, but be reassigned to Hawaii. Anyone working a playoff game on-field cannot work the Pro Bowl.

  7. As the playoffs start today let us please honor the referee that first mastered the microphone, Dr. Jim Tunney. While he exhibited the best in display of signals he also mastered the microphone like no one else has. Best at game control, best at signals, and best at the microphone. Best of all time, Dr. Jim Tunney the great communicator.

  8. @thomas dunn What an idiotic comment. Especially, since #53 has no business doing that job, and there are dozens if not hundreds of more qualified officials working in college who are not able to break in to the NFL ranks.

  9. Regarding pronoun usage, if you knew proper English, his pronoun usage includes the feminine. It is supposed to be “understood “

  10. Hey lets talk about the “elephant” in the room ! If she was a “guy” she’d be lucky to be on a high school crew ! And a further comment about Morelli : he was burdened by her and a weak crew overall. Notice only Camp -as an alternate no less – made the playoffs !

  11. Why does the NFL have to “tier” their officials? Should not each and everyone of these men (and woman) be top tier no ifs and or butts? Aren’t they supposed to be the “best?” Shouldn’t each and every one of them be playoff qualified at the top tier? There should be no difference between any of them, as they all should be excellent, correct? The simple answer should be “Yes.” There should be only one level in the NFL – the top tier. But this is not the case. There are varied levels from excellent (a few, perhaps 15%) Good (a few more perhaps 25%) Average (perhaps 20%) and suck terribly and are overweight(40%) As most but the suck ups on this site know, at least half of these officials would not have been hired into the NFL but for the old adage “Skin or kin and you’re in.” Thus, they are ranked by tier, because so many of them suck. I guarantee you if Blandino was canned and the hiring process re-visited with only qualified, competent officials getting hired, with no preference given to sex, race or relation – there would be a staff of mechanically superb, rules proficient officials working in the NFL and we would see none of the garbage officiating we see on a weekly basis. Believe you me, there are at least 120 guys working D1, D2,and D3 that would not only cherish the opportunity to officiate in the NFL, they would respect the position by perfecting their mechanics and rules knowledge by constant study and repetition. They would not be burdened by running major football conferences DURING THE NFL SEASON no less. Tell me how these guys can devote time to their NFL craft, while being employed full time and also work supervising a college conference as many of these NFL official do? Fixing the crappy officiating product we see on the field every week would be easily fixed, by starting at the top. Takeout the head, and hire competent workers. Yep, I’m jaded. Back in the early 2000s when the NFL scouted me (called me out of the blue as I never applied and requested my college schedule for the upcoming season – at least a scout saw competence, observed me work one game, just one – and knew what he saw – and on the sidelines after the game told me I was receiving my application and would be put into the system for hiring – but also told me at the same time I would never see the field because “we are targeting young minorities in high school and lower level college ball to bring into the NFL.” Yes, the scout actually said this in front of witnesses because as anyone who works college ball knows, it is no big secret that this is the hiring process. There was an official I knew at the same time who was an average at best hs official – not even working college ball – a full fledged minority, who was scouted that season and was pulled right into major D1 the next season, and 5 years later was working in the NFL. He was average back then, and actually is terrible in the NFL, yet he remains on staff. But he had the ONE character they are looking for…..oh well, it’s political correctness run amok, as it has been for years. Sucks to be me. Go Trump! LOL.

  12. Jade, you the man! 100% agree. Now they want to recruit former players! College supervisors should just tell their crews the truth…don’t plan on moving up unless you look like…

  13. Regarding the pronoun usage, I’ve generally been on top of that this season. In this case, I cobbled this post together from last year’s post on the topic when that wasn’t a consideration.

  14. So, I am going to try and break this down in order to predict the Super Bowl referee.

    First, I have to find out who is the Tier 1 referees. We know there will be about 5 referees in this group. So who is it? Well, I assume they don’t make big differences from one year to the next. So 1 year ago, Vinovich was in this group. Also, Anderson and Corrente was definitely in this group, as they refereed the conference championships. The 4 divisional referees last year were McAuley, Leavy, Vinovich and Steratore. Leavy har retired, and Steratore did a wild card game, so none of them are in Tier 1. We don’t know if Steratore was relegated or actually was a tier 1 referee last year, same with Leavy, but it doesn’t really matter. As McAuley did the 2014 Super Bowl, and did a divisonal game last year, I have to assume he was Tier 1. If not, I think they would let another, new tier 2 referee do a divisional game.

    Neither Vinovich, Anderson, Corrente, and McAuley has done a playoff game yet this year, and there has not been much controversy around any of them, except maybe McAuley. I think they are all in Tier 1 still.
    What is interesting, however, is that 4 of them have done Super Bowls before. We know that the Super Bowl will go to a referee that has not done a Super Bowl before if he is in Tier 1. THe only exeption is if someone was passed over last year by Vinovich, but was actually higher rated.
    So the first question we have to answer is, was someone bypassed because Vinovich was allowed to do his first Super Bowl last year?
    I think it is possible, and the most likely candidates for that is Corrente, or maybe Anderson. So if any of them are rated the highest this year, they will do the Super Bowl.
    Of the two, I would probably guess Corrente. He has done conference championship two consecutive years under Blandino, and it is 9 years since his last Super Bowl.

    I guess there is a chance that McAuley was passed over last year too, but he has already done three Super Bowls, and he did the Giants-Panthers game where he failed to eject ODB.

    However, being top referee two consecutive years is extremely tough, and I think there is a new referee in Tier 1 this year, as there are only 4 I could name so far.
    So who is the 5th one?

    I think it is hard to get from no playoff game last year directly to the Super Bowl. We know that Wrolstad and Hussey are not eligible, and Boger haven’t gotten any primetime games this year, as the only referee. Triplette everyone thinks is hopeless, so I don’t think he is the one. Coleman hasn’t really done any big playoff games the last 10 years.

    Of the wild card referees last year Morelli has had too much controversy this year. And Hochuli got the final primetime game, which I guess is kinda a reward in itself, not something a super bowl referee would do. He also seems to be on the downswing.

    That leaves Cheffers and Blakeman as the two probable last Tier 1 referees. So unless someone has been the top referee two years in a row, which I think is extremely hard, my guess would be one of them. To me, it just seems like Blakeman has the upper hand of the two. He is on his was up, and I can’t really find any faults.

    So, in conclusion, I would probably guess Blakeman, he has about 35% chance. Corrente I would put at 25%, Anderson and Cheffers at about 15% each
    Then I think McAuley has 5%. Then 5% for the rest, with Morelli, Hochuli or Coleman as most likely in the last group.

    What do you think?

  15. My guess is that Clete Blakeman will do the Super Bowl while it will be Carl Cheffers and Walt Anderson for the Conference Championships.

  16. Lisa I am not sure what your saying about the Morelli crew about officials who made the playoffs??? If your talking about this year its only the wild card round. If you taking about others on the crew I know they have made it at least to the super bowl (in the past).

  17. I understand that postseason assigning is very much dictated by the CBA between the officials and NFL, but I would like to see less officials working postseason. 11 games, 10 sets of officials (plus many alternates) out of 17 seems a bit high. I’d like to see around 8 or 9 sets, where SB and CC-caliber officials get an early round game not only as a warmup, but as a “sorting round” to see who goes where. Thus my proposed tiers:
    Tier 1: 3-4 officials per position, All will participate in CC or SB plus a Divisional or Wild Card game. Performance in early round game considered in finals assignments.
    Tier 2: 4-5 officials, will get an on-field assignment in divisional or wild card round, possible alternates elsewhere.
    Tier 3: 3-4 officials, not good enough for on-field assignment but good enough for alternates. Will be given at least one alternate.
    Tier 4: Everyone else, possible disciplinary action.

  18. Nice analysis by Erling. A lot of thought into it and most of it makes sense.

    I would add that Terry Mcaulay isn’t awful, he is GOD-AWFUL. If you are the NFL, why take any chances at a disaster occurring? Tell Terry thanks for your service, now move on. Everyone wins then.

  19. Let’s NOT get caught up in SEMANTICS (i.e GENDER) the subject matter is about the SELECTION PROCESS…table the “political correctness” for another time.

  20. Jade, no. No matter how rarified the altitude, some people always rise to the top, and maybe it’s just luck, or it’s skill, but some officials will make for the best overall presentation of an NFL game and others will not. Again, it can be luck, for example, the recent Cleveland Pittsburgh game was would have been a challenge for anyone. As for skill, yes, there are many with 20:20 vision and a complete understanding of these rules, but it is sometimes the intangible, the ability to run the game without intruding, to keep the peace without becoming part of the action, and of course, to make clear decisive, unsuccessfully challenged calls, that makes for a Tier 1 official.

  21. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that every official at every position has a composite rating for 16 games worked, times heaven knows how many plays per game. I’m not saying every official gets a grade on every play of the game, but it’s close, and then the tier system comes into play. Is it possible for a rookie official to get a rating high enough to get a playoff assignment? Probably not, and even if he/she did, the tier system would “modify” that.

    What do you want to bet Art McNally had a tier system, even if it was only in his head? I remember bringing along a second-year official to become a first-year referee in 1977. The guy’s name was Jerry Markbreit. One year with the great Tommy Bell, and then the rest of Tommy’s crew went to McNally and said, “We’ll bring Jerry along.” It worked. Jerry ended up working four Super Bowls as a referee, and no one has matched that yet. Terry McAulay might, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world in this era of replays and reversals.

    As for kin, skin and gender playing a role, is anybody surprised by this? It happens in this world all the time, not just in hiring NFL officials. We can moan and groan all we want, but we don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes. Never forget: It’s the owners who run this league, and as long as they’re happy with the job Dean Blandino is doing, it’s his philosophy of playoff assignments and hiring practices that will prevail.

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