Football Zebras analysis
Every year, we try to sift through the tea leaves and narrow down the likely candidates for the Super Bowl. Given a combination of factors in previous years, once we were correct in December, other times we were a little guarded in the second week of the playoffs, and last year we were flat out wrong.
This time, entering the divisional playoff round, we have a high degree of certainty we know the referee for Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2: Clete Blakeman.
Again, we have an asterisk on there just to make sure the Clete Blakeman Fan Club does not start booking flights to Miami. Anything is possible, but based on past scheduling patterns, we feel confident here.
To start, the Super Bowl officiating crew gets a second assignment in the divisional playoff round split among the four playoff games. We have confirmed that Walt Anderson, Clete Blakeman, Bill Vinovich, and Shawn Hochuli are the divisional playoff referees.
We can scratch Hochuli off the list, because he has not worked a playoff game in a previous season at a referee, a mandatory requirement for working the Super Bowl in the referee position. This is his second season wearing the white hat, and longstanding practice is that first-year referees are not eligible for a playoff assignment, other than as an alternate.
Walt Anderson and Bill Vinovich both worked as alternates in the wild card round. The officiating department has never given more than two assignments to any one official, on-field or alternate. This is a wobbly pin in the rack, as there’s no confirmation that this precedent would absolutely be adhered to. But the only reason to break that precedent is that there is such a dearth of qualified officials, that they had to triple assign referees for the first time. We also cannot rule out an overhaul to the system, and that the Super Bowl officials are not necessarily assigned in the divisional playoffs, as was the case most recently in 2011, but for now it appears to be a safe assumption as well.
This leaves Blakeman, who was the referee for Super Bowl 50 between the Broncos and Panthers. He was a Tier 1 official — the so-called championship tier — last season, as he and Vinovich both worked a conference championships last year. We do know that there was a provision in the collective bargaining agreement — and very likely still in the current one — that an official that ranks first in grading in two consecutive seasons cannot be passed over for another official. It is possible that referee John Parry was very close in the grading to Blakeman, and was given the assignment last year since Blakeman had a more recent Super Bowl.
Using the above procedures, we can also place umpire Barry Anderson and side judge Boris Cheek in the final game. There are two possibilities for down judge and field judge, three for line judge, and we cannot narrow down the back judge position.
Casual fans may remember that Blakeman was the referee for the Lions-Packers game on Monday night in Week 6 in which two fouls were called for illegal hands to the face, when there clearly was no foul. Those were not Blakeman’s flags — they came from the umpire — so they are not downgrades on his record.
Including the divisional playoff assignment this week, Blakeman’s playoff résumé is impressive. He has 4 wild card playoffs, 3 divisional playoffs, and conference championship games in the last 2 preseasons to go along with the Super Bowl assignment. The only two seasons he did not get an on-field assignment are 2012 and 2016. He is in his 10th season as a referee and 12th as an official.
Blakeman will work the Seahawks-Packers game on Sunday. The Super Bowl crew is typically confirmed a few days after the divisional playoff games.