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2019 PostseasonProcedures for assigning mixed crews for the NFL playoffs

Procedures for assigning mixed crews for the NFL playoffs

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. 

Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron determines the assignments by placing officials in a three-tier ranking. Tier 1 is a championship level; Tier 2 is a postseason-qualified level; and Tier 3 officials do not get assignments. Although the placement into a tier is largely based on grades, it has the subjectivity to allow Riveron 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. There are 6 first-year officials (an umpire, down judge, line judge, field judge, and 2 side judges) and 3 new referees this year. There are 7 officials in their second season who are now playoff eligible, as are the 4 referees that were promoted in the 2018 season.

Injuries can also be a factor, particularly for late-season injuries or prolonged absences earlier in the season.

Past practice is that 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. This changed in 2017, as there were some officials that worked both the Wild Card round and a Conference Championship game; this was repeated in 2018, and there is an expectation that will continue in 2019.

Super Bowl

The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials, but these minimum qualifications apply:

Referee Other positions
  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • 3 years as NFL referee
  • 1 postseason game as a referee in a previous season
  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • Postseason experience of either:
    • 1 career conference championship game
    • 3 playoff games in the previous 5 years

Referees Brad Allen and Ron Torbert have not worked a conference championship, but are Super Bowl eligible as referees. (Torbert also covers the 3-in-5 criteria if that applied to the referee position.) Out of all the referees eligible for the Super Bowl, they are the only 2 that have not previously worked a Super Bowl at any position.

This season, 5 officials are in their first year of Super Bowl eligibility: umpires Bryan Neale and Bruce Stritesky, down judge Patrick Turner, and field judges Terry Brown and Aaron Santi. All worked their first conference championship last season, except Santi who did so in 2017 and just made the 5-year mark.

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 usually 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 the qualification factors in the table above.

Also, an official cannot work consecutive Super Bowls, which excludes the 6 remaining members of the Super Bowl LIII crew. (Referee John Parry retired.)

In total, the number of Super Bowl qualified officials by position are 10 referees, 12 umpires, 10 down judges, 10 line judges, 8 field judges, 6 side judges, and 11 back judges.

Conference Championships

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. 

Those who are now qualified for the Conference Championship this year include umpire Ramon George and down judges Kevin Codey, David Oliver, and Sarah Thomas.

In addition to the rookie officials that are disqualified from any postseason assignment, there are 2 umpires, 2 down judges, a line judge, 3 field judges, and a side judge that are not eligible for the Conference Championship.

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. (Theoretically, there will be a second Super Bowl official in the mix for each position if there is a major controversy or injury.) The Tier 2 officials fill in the remaining divisionals and then the wild cards. This year, we are looking at the Wild Card officials for potential Conference Championship officials, as there were a number of double-ups last two seasons

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 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. Since the Pro Bowl will again 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. This would remove them from on-field assignments, and moving up the next qualified official in the postseason assignments. The officials’ union will make recommendations to the officiating office for these honorary assignments.

Alternate officials and replay

First-year officials can qualify for alternate assignments. Tier 3 officials do not even get alternate assignments. Super Bowl alternates typically have an on-field playoff assignment earlier in the playoffs, and depending on the number of Tier 1 and 2 officials, some may work as both an alternate and on the field in different rounds.

Starting this season, there are four alternate officials, one each of a referee, an umpire, a line official, and a deep official. 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. Since the 2017 season, no umpires were assigned alternates, except for the Super Bowl, in order to ensure every game had a backup white hat. Previous to 2017 it was a referee or an umpire, but not both. 

Alternate officials generally assist the crew on the sideline in various game administration roles. For example, one is assigned as a replay field communicator and another works as the coordinator of the kicking ball supply.

Replay officials and replay assistants 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. The replay booth video operator and the clock operators who work locally during the regular season are assigned from another city, typically one from the other conference. The chain crew is the same from the regular season.

This post was updated to reflect the expansion of alternate officials from 3 to 4.

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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)

3 thoughts on “Procedures for assigning mixed crews for the NFL playoffs

  1. Novel idea – Hire the best officials available, based upon merit alone.

    Then … you could just assign the best crews to do playoff games.

    Or… does anyone wants to state that the NFL hires officials purely on merit.

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