The methodology of how officials are assigned to postseason games has had an air of mystery, but the league and the officials’ union have established a basic framework for determining which officials get playoff assignments.
Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino determines the assignments by first taking the cumulative accuracy percentage of every official into consideration. It’s not a straight 1-to-17 grade ranking, instead 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.
Although the placement into a tier is largely based on grades, it has the subjectivity to allow Blandino 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. (This excludes 3 new members on the officiating staff.) This season, 10 officials became eligible, as well as referee John Hussey, in his second season as referee.
Injuries can also be a factor, particularly for late-season injuries or prolonged absences earlier in the season.
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.
The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials, but these minimum qualifications apply:
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 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 other qualification factors.
Also, an official cannot work consecutive Super Bowls, which excludes Clete Blakeman and the Super Bowl 50 crew. Hussey is also not qualified, nor is third-year referee Brad Allen; this leaves 14 of the 17 referees qualified for the Super Bowl.
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.
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. 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.
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; this was to offer the free Hawaii vacation to those who had not been assigned previously. Since the Pro Bowl will 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 in Green Bay. This would remove them from on-field assignments, and moving up the next qualified official in the postseason assignments.
Alternate officials and replay
Alternate officials have been assigned differently than in past years. First-year officials can qualify for alternate assignments. It seems that Tier 3 officials do not even get alternate assignments, as the past two seasons 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. Conference Championship officials last season were assigned to alternate positions in the first two rounds, presumably to close the gap from the last regular season game.
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.
Replay officials 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.