Sacramento’s Mike Pereira, a former NFL referee and head of NFL referees, is a rules analyst for Fox Sports. He is writing a weekly column for The Sacramento Bee throughout the postseason.
As the lyrics go in one of Willie Nelson’s hit songs, “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.”
Well, I have been on the road for 19 consecutive weekends, and I can’t say that I can’t wait to get on the road again. But before leaving for the 20th consecutive weekend, I am going to do something different. I’m going to take you with me.
Not to Los Angeles, home to Fox Sports studios, where I have spent 18 of those 19 weekends. We are going to Wisconsin for Sunday’s playoff game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
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The “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, where the predicted temperature during the game is 19 degrees. The Lambeau turf won’t actually be frozen because of heaters installed beneath the field in 1967. First it was with electric coils and now with a series of underground pipes filled with a solution that includes antifreeze.
This system of evaluation is based on individual performance and not the performance of the crew. I believe in the crew concept. Why put individuals together who likely have not worked together during the season or maybe ever?
So you know a little about the turf, the Giants and the Packers. What you don’t know is who the officials will be and the criteria used to assign them to this game and the rest of the playoffs.
Assignments are merit-based. Each NFL official is evaluated every play of every game. Most of the evaluation is based on the calls they make or don’t make. There are also subjective elements such as communication, decisiveness, game management, rules knowledge and positioning.
After the season-long evaluation, their score places them in one of three tiers. If an official finishes in the top tier, he or she is eligible to work the Super Bowl or one of the conference championship games. Tier II officials are eligible to work wild-card or divisional playoff games. Tier III officials are left home and likely put on probation. Consecutive years in Tier III probably means weekends at home next fall and beyond. We can conclude the officials for this weekend’s games will come from Tier II.
It all sounds reasonable, right? Not to me.
This system of evaluation is based on individual performance and not the performance of the crew. I believe in the crew concept. Why put individuals together who likely have not worked together during the season or maybe ever? Why not advance the crews that performed the best over the season while becoming familiar with each official’s strengths and weaknesses? After all, the Giants and Packers advanced to the playoffs as a team.
Instead, seven officials will work together, in most cases, for the first time this season. This could lead to breakdowns in communication and decisiveness. The trust and familiarity they worked to establish over 19 weeks as a crew, including preseason games, are gone.
Just ask Detroit Lions fans. Remember the 2014 playoffs, when pass interference was called against the Dallas Cowboys, then rescinded without a worthy explanation? What a mess.
If you are asking why I didn’t do this when I was in charge, well, I did. In three consecutive seasons, 2003 to 2005, I advanced crews together and put the top-performing crew in the Super Bowl. Officials hated it, except for field judge Tom Sifferman, who ended up working all three of those Super Bowls. Tom may not have been the highest-rated field judge each season, but he was part of the best team.
Why not advance the crews that performed the best over the season while becoming familiar with each official’s strengths and weaknesses? Instead, seven officials will work together, in most cases, for the first time this season.
After three seasons, the officials’ union complained and the league backed the union. More power to the individual. Forget about the team.
The officials selected to work in Green Bay on Sunday will be notified Tuesday. Most will not be thrilled to get the call. The main reason is that working a wild-card game eliminates them from working the Super Bowl. Those officials will come from a group of 28 who work the divisional playoff games next week.
The other reason officials won’t like the trip to Wisconsin this weekend? Take a guess. To keep it in musical terms, Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark were the first duet to sing, “Baby, it’s cold outside.”
At least the bottoms of their feet will be warm.
The methodology of determining playoff assignments changed slightly when Dean Blandino was named vice president of officiating in 2013. It largely resembles the system previously in place. Rather than a straight 1-to-17 grade ranking, Blandino places the officials at each position into one of three tiers. Tier 1 is, for the lack of a better term, the championship level; Tier 2 is a qualified level; and Tier 3 are officials that do not get assignments.
The placement into a tier is largely based on grades, but has the subjectivity to allow Blandino to consider intangibles, such as leadership, decisiveness, and managing the pace of game. “There are some things that I, as a supervisor, need to have the ability to look at for the overall picture of what makes a good official,” Blandino said in a 2013 interview.
Updated post for 2016 season: Postseason assignments use mixed crews, not all-star crews
The tiers generally align to the previous constructs of the assignment levels from 2012 and before. For example, Tier 1 was a five-official group of the highest graded officials under the old system. Blandino could put four or six in that group depending on the qualifications he sees.
Playoff referees are assigned individually to mixed crews in the postseason. The term all-star crews is not really applicable until the Conference Championship games. Crews were previously assigned as a whole unit (with an occasional substitution to promote or demote some officials), but this practice was ended by the most recent collective bargaining agreement with the officials. This prevents lower-graded officials from either riding the coat-tails of a good crew or to negatively affecting superior crewmates.
The procedure below is mostly re-posted from our reporting last year with some updated information.
Playoff assignment procedure
First, to qualify for any playoff assignment, an official may not be in his first season and a referee may not be in his first season as referee. (This excludes 10 new members on the officiating staff and veteran John Hussey, a first-year referee.) There are 13 officials who became eligible, as well as two referees — Craig Wrolstad and Ron Torbert.
Super Bowl. The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials. An official at each position in that tier that has not previously worked a Super Bowl 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, he will not be skipped again if he ranks first in the current season. The first preference must also meet other qualification factors. For the referee, the minimum qualifications are as follows:
- 5 years of NFL experience
- 3 years as NFL referee
- 1 playoff game as a referee
For his crewmates, the minimum criteria are:
- 5 years of NFL experience
- 1 career conference championship game or 3 playoff games in the previous 5 years
Also, an official cannot work consecutive Super Bowls, which excludes Bill Vinovich this year. This leaves 12 of the 17 referees qualified for the Super Bowl as we began the 2015 season.
Conference Championship. The remaining Tier 1 officials are distributed to the Conference Championship round and, if necessary, to Divisional Playoffs. Conference Championship officials must have three years of seniority and a prior playoff assignment.
Divisional and Wild Card Playoffs. The Super Bowl crew will get divisional playoff assignments, although they won’t all be on the same crew. The Tier 2 officials fill in the remaining divisionals and then the wild cards. An official working the Wild Card round will be ranked as low as 10th out of 17, and ranked lower depending on the number of officials at the position that are not playoff eligible.
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 Hawaii-based Pro Bowl. There are exceptions to award this assignment to a retiring official, even if they qualify for an outdoor playoff game in Minnesota.
Alternate officials. Alternate officials have been assigned differently than in past years. First-year officials and first-year referees can qualify for alternate assignments. It seems that Tier 3 officials do not even get alternate assignments, as the 2014 season had some officials getting two alternates and some getting an on-field and an alternate assignment. Super Bowl alternates typically have an on-field playoff assignment earlier in the playoffs. There are three alternate officials, which usually fall into one of these three groups: referee/umpire, line officials, and deep officials. The Super Bowl has five alternates: referee, umpire, line officials, deep wings, and back judge.