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NFL expands playoffs to 7 seeds, but not necessarily to more officials

More playoff games means more postseason assignments for the officiating crews. Or does it?



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The NFL owners have approved expanding the playoffs to include number 7 seeds in each conference and adding 2 wild card playoff games starting in the 2020 postseason. The vote was taken by owners via conference call during what was to be their annual owners meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla., through April 1 due to travel restrictions and isolation measures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The league did not announce the number of votes, however there must be at least three-quarters of all owners voting in favor, or 24 owners.

The vote strikes an optimistic tone in a barren sportscape that the NFL will even get to the postseason. A second outbreak of the virus is expected in the fall, although Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s lead expert in infectious diseases believes it could be more isolated. If the regular season starts as scheduled, the irregular offseason already has been disruptive.

The extra wild card games were awarded to CBS and NBC. The CBS game will also stream on CBS All Access and air an alternate broadcast on Nickelodeon formatted for children. The NBC game will also air on Telemundo and stream on the network’s Peacock service. Three wild card games will air each on Saturday and Sunday.

The postseason expansion would remove the bye for the 2 seed into the divisional round to play the 7 seed, with the other games being 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 as before. This is the first playoff expansion since 1990, when the sixth seed was added, which pulled a division winner into the wild-card round for the first time. Now, only the top seed in each conference will skip the wild card. Previous expansions were the addition of the wild card games in 1978 (4 vs. 5 only) and a four-team playoff which started in 1967 and was reconfigured after the 1970 merger with the AFL. The Super Bowl was added in the 1966 season; prior to 1966, there was only a league championship game and a one-game playoff as needed.

In each of those playoff expansions, more officials qualified for postseason assignments, but there is a question if that will be the case in 2020.

For several years, the league has given the Super Bowl officials a second assignment in the divisional round, wisely splitting the layover between Week 17 and Week 22. This would grant on-field assignments to 10 officials per position. Although the grades get down to thousandths of a percentage, the playoff cut is technically lower than the top half, before even subtracting first-year officials and first-year referees who do not get a playoff game. (There are additional subjective factors that are considered in addition to the grades.)

In the past 3 postseasons, most of the conference championship crews were previously assigned to a wild-card game. Combined with doubling assignments for alternate officials, it narrowed the playoff tier significantly. There is no expectation this will change in 2020, but with a total of 13 postseason games, it will again move the cut line further down if adjustments aren’t made.

When the alternate officials are also added to the mix, there aren’t enough officials to fill all the games without giving double assignments. In anticipation of the playoff expansion, the collective bargaining agreement with the officials signed last September likely had special provisions, just as the players’ CBA did.

Triple assignments were never used until last season, but at least one of those three assignments was an alternate in all cases.

The most logical solution is that the top 7 officials at each position should get an on-field playoff. The wild card officials would be just like the teams, 2 through 7. The officials ranked 4 through 6 would also work the divisional playoffs, as well as the eventual Super Bowl crew. (For various reasons, the Super Bowl crew is not necessarily the top-graded official at each position, but for this example, whoever is in the Super Bowl is ranked 1.) The conference championship officials would also work the wild-card round.

The equivalent of one crew will have one on-field assignment, and can also take one or two alternates. All others will have two on-field assignments, and maybe an alternate. Since there has to be 6 full and 6 partial crews ready for the wild card round, they will get deep into the bench at the referee and umpire positions by necessity. But if the on-field assignments are restricted to 7 per position, it will go a long way to tighten up the qualifications for the postseason.

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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