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2023 postseason

How does the NFL assign mixed crews for the playoffs?

A look at playoff qualifying criteria for NFL officials.

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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. 

[Editor’s note: Information contained here about a specific official’s eligibility is accurate for the 2023-24 postseason.]

The league will continue to use a tier system in order to assign officials for postseason games. Sources have told Football Zebras that, starting in the 2020-21 postseason, a five-tier system was employed, replacing the previous three-tier system. While the basis of the tiers remains the same — championship level officials, playoff qualified officials, and not playoff qualified — the language has been altered and expanded across five levels.

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, and was kept in the 2019 collective bargaining agreement.

As Tier 1 officials are assigned to the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, those crews can be more accurately referred to as all-star crews.

Playoff assignment procedure

In order to qualify for any postseason assignment, an official must not be in their first season or their first season as referee. There are 12 first-year officials who are ineligible for the postseason: 2 umpires, 3 down judges, 2 line judges, 2 field judges, a side judge, and 2 back judges. In addition, referee Alan Eck will sit out this postseason, as it is his first at the referee position.

This season there are 10 second-year officials, as well as second-year referee Tra Blake (his 4th season), who are now playoff eligible.

Once playoff eligibility is addressed, there are additional criteria that must be met for the top games.

Super Bowl

The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials, not necessarily the #1 ranked official at their positions, but these minimum qualifications apply:

Referee

  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • 3 years as NFL referee
  • 1 postseason game as a referee in a previous season

Other positions

  • 5 years of NFL experience
  • Postseason experience of either:
    • 1 career conference championship game
    • 3 playoff-qualifying seasons in the previous 5 years

As part of the change to the five-tier assignment system, Super Bowl eligibility qualifications for non-referees have changed slightly. For all non-referees who meet the five-year tenure requirement, but have not worked a Conference Championship game, three playoff-qualifying seasons in the previous five years will count as qualified for the Super Bowl. Previously, an official needed to officiate three postseason games on the field in this five year span to be eligible. Now, alternate assignments and injured officials who qualified but were unable to officiate due to their injury will be counted in the 3-of-5 requirement.

In Super Bowl LV, down judge Sarah Thomas and field judge James Coleman were, in fact, eligible to work that game due to this change in the eligibility requirements. Coleman was injured and could not officiate in the playoffs in 2015, and Thomas was injured in 2016. They additionally had enough alternate assignments to make them eligible.

This season, umpire Steve Woods and line judge Brian Bolinger are the only officials who are eligible to officiate the Super Bowl specifically under this expanded 3-of-5 provision. However, at the time of publication, Woods already has a Wild Card assignment and is out of contention for a Super Bowl LVIII assignment.

Referee Adrian Hill and 8 non-referees are qualified for the Super Bowl for the first time this season.

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 at least 3 years of experience and a prior playoff assignment

Field judge Anthony Flemming is the only official qualified for a Conference Championship game for the first time this season.

Divisional and Wild Card Playoffs

First, the Super Bowl crew will get Divisional Playoff assignments, although they necessarily 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 officials remaining in playoff-qualified tiers fill in the remaining Divisional Playoffs and then the Wild Card Playoffs.

Typically, a backup Super Bowl official at each position is selected in the event of an injury or major controversy in the Divisional Round. The names of those backups are not released, but there were two instances where it became known that a backup official was assigned to the Super Bowl.

Alternate officials and low graded officials

Alternate officials are generally considered to be in a playoff-qualified tier, but this has been a matter of debate in the officiating community. Depending on how senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson applies his tier system, alternates could be an overflow of officials that might have earned an on-field assignment plus a lower tier of alternate-only eligibles. Also, due to the number of playoff assignments, some officials will work two games, with one or both being an alternate assignment. The only exception is the Super Bowl crew will have that second on-field assignment in the Divisional round, but no more.

Lowest tier officials do not get a playoff assignment, and three years in this tier can cause an official to be dismissed.

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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