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.
Sources have told Football Zebras that senior vice president of officiating training and development Walt Anderson, in his first season with the league office, will be determining the assignments. We have confirmed that the league will continue to use a tier system in order to assign officials for postseason games. Past practice has been to use a three-tier system: wherein 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 Anderson 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.
We reached out to the league to verify the details of the protocol, but they declined to elaborate.
This season has brought many challenges with regards to ensuring a full crew can be staffed to officiate a game. As covid-19 continues to spread rapidly across the country, this is no different for the postseason. This means that the officials on the field for postseason games may not have been the first choices by Anderson when considering grading and performance during the assigning of the tiers.
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 more appropriate.
While it may seem counterintuitive to break up crews for the postseason after developing chemistry and recognizing tendencies during the regular season, it makes more sense to staff the best officials at each position for the season’s most important games, rather than award to the Super Bowl to the league’s best crew, which may contain an underperforming official or officials. This season, not a single week took place where every game was worked by all of the regular crews. It may be an anomaly when comparing to past seasons, but this year, unlike many, provided for more changeup in the roster.
Additionally, the regular season crews were generally assigned on a regional basis as a preventative measure under the league’s coronavirus protocols. There is every indication that the league will do the best to minimize the amount of air travel, and assign qualified officials within driving distance when possible.
Playoff assignment procedure
First, to qualify for any postseason assignment, an official may not be in their first season or their first season as referee. There are 11 first-year officials (an umpire, a down judge, 3 line judges, 2 field judges, 3 side judges, and a back judge), and Land Clark is the sole new referee. There are 6 officials in their second season who are now playoff eligible, as are the 3 referees that were promoted in the 2019 season.
Injuries can also be a factor, particularly for late-season injuries or prolonged absences earlier in the season. This season, covid-19 quarantines and isolations have resulted in an atypical number of absences among officials during the season. A large number of officials were sidelined in Week 17, presumably for covid-19 protocols, and may not be able to work in the early rounds of the postseason, despite being eligible.
The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials, but these minimum qualifications apply:
Referees Brad Allen, Shawn Hochuli, and Ron Torbert have not worked a conference championship, but are Super Bowl eligible as referees (Hochuli and Torbert also satisfy the 3-in-5 criterion if that applied to the referee position). Out of all the referees eligible for the Super Bowl, they are the only 3, as well as Shawn Smith, (who worked the 2017 NFC Championship Game as an umpire) that have not previously worked a Super Bowl at any position.
Down judge Jerod Phillips is in his first year of Super Bowl eligibility. He worked his first conference championship last season.
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 7 members of the Super Bowl LIV crew.
In total, the number of Super Bowl qualified officials by position are 10 referees, 10 umpires, 9 down judges, 8 line judges, 9 field judges, 5 side judges, and 9 back judges.
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 at least 3 years of experience and a prior playoff assignment.
Side judge Mearl Robinson is now qualified for a Conference Championship game for the first time this season.
In addition to the rookie officials that are disqualified from any postseason assignment, there are 2 umpires, 3 down judges, 2 line judges, a field judge, 2 side judges, and 2 back judges 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. Also, as we’ve seen since 2017, the Conference Championship crews will get Wild Card Playoff assignments. Again, they won’t all come from the same Wild Card 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 Divisional Playoffs and then the Wild Card Playoffs.
Typically, a second Super Bowl official at each position is selected in the event of an injury or major controversy in the Divisional Round. This season, as covid-19 has forced many officials to stay home, it is likely that there will be multiple backups at each position in the event of an unexpected need to quarantine.
This is the first season there are 6 Wild Card Playoff games, and it is unknown if the playoff pool is expanding by two, or if more officials will be assigned to multiple playoff games.
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.
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 5 alternate officials, one each of a referee, an umpire, a line official, a deep wing official, and a back judge. This is likely due to the impacts of covid-19, marking the second increase in as many years (total alternate officials jumped from 3 to 4 last season). The Super Bowl generally has five alternates, but a source indicates that the league is preparing for a full crew of alternate officials, including the first instance of an alternate replay official. The only other time a full crew of alternates were assigned was the first Super Bowl in January 1967.
We may even see increased numbers of alternate officials in the Conference Championships, as Anderson may be forced to name more backups in the event of a covid-19 isolation or quarantine.
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 two alternates will work opposite sidelines with one team’s supply of kicking balls.
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. Since replay assistants are working regionally this season due to covid-19 protocols, they will work in their home stadium.
Ben Austro contributed to this report.