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Under Further Review #6Play-Off Assignments
The referees for this past week-end's wild card play-offs were Gene Steratore, Walt Coleman, Ron Tolbert and John Parry. Often the question is asked, how are NFL play-off officials selected and assigned? The actual process appears to be as complex and mystifying as the selection of a Pope but here are some of the details.
The present methodology of determining playoff assignments was established after the 2013 season, in part as the result of the 2012 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the NFL Officials Association. Officials at each position are not ranked on a 1-17 (there are 17 crews plus 3 swing officials) but are placed in one of three tiers. The top tier includes the officials that are considered to be capable of working the conference championships and Super Bowl games. The second tier includes those officials that are considered to be qualified to work lower level play-off games and the officials in the third tier are officials that do not get on-field play-off assignments. The placements change from year to year depending on an officials performance during that season.
Tier placement is based largely on the grades that each official receives for each game he works during the season but there is also some subjectivity to allow Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino, who has never officiated a football game at any level, to consider certain intangibles. Why this subjectivity, which introduces the possibility of favoritism impacting the assignments, is allowed in the process is unclear.
The Referees for each play-off game are assigned to mixed crews (i.e., the Referee is not working with his in season crew but with a mixture of individuals from various in season crews) in the postseason. Although John Madden often referred to these crews as all-star crews, the term is not really applicable until the Conference Championship games. Up until the 2013 season, crews were assigned as a whole unit for the first two rounds of the play-offs but this practice was ended by the 2012 CBA.
There are a number of other caveats that impact which officials work which games and some of them are discussed below.
First year officials and first year Referees do not qualify for any playoff assignment.
The Super Bowl officials are 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 minimum qualifications for the Super Bowl Referee are as follows:
• 5 years of NFL experience
• 3 years as NFL referee
• 1 playoff game as a referee
For the officials at the other positions, the minimum criteria are:
• 5 years of NFL experience
• 1 career conference championship game or 3 playoff games in the previous 5 years
Finally, no official cannot work consecutive Super Bowls.
The officials for the two Conference Championship games are selected from the remaining Tier 1 officials. Conference Championship officials must have three years of seniority and a prior playoff assignment. If there are Tier 1 officials who are not selected to work the Super Bowl or the Conference championship games, they are assigned to Divisional Playoff games.
The officials who are selected to work the Super Bowl crew will all be assigned to divisional playoff games although they will not all be on the same crew. It is unclear why this is the case as having a game together would give them a step up for the Super Bowl. The Referees for the coming week-end's divisional playoffs are Craig Wrolstad (#4), Tony Corrente (#99), Clete Blakeman (#34) and Terry McAuley (#77). The Giants saw all of the crews headed by these officials during the latter part of the season with McAuley working the Giants - Panthers game. One of these Referees will be assigned to head the Super Bowl crew. Tier 2 officials then fill in the remaining divisional and wild card assignments.
Tier 3 officials do not get a playoff assignment. There are some indications that an official ranking in the third tier for three years in a row can be dismissed.
For the Wild Card, Division, and Conference Championship games, three alternates are typically assigned although this is not always the case. The three alternates typically come from one of three groups: referee/umpire, line officials, and deep officials. The Super Bowl has five alternates: referee, umpire, line officials, deep wings, and back judge. Typically, the Super Bowl alternates had an earlier assignment during the play-offs. Kudos to Walt Coleman's Play-Off Crew
Walt Coleman, who is the senior NFL Referee, drew the short straw when he headed the crew for the Vikings - Seahawks game played in zero (or below) temperatures. Often it is forgotten that the officials are on the field for 90 minute stretches in such weather with no chance to take a break, warm themselves at the sideline heaters or go to the bathroom. other problems occur when saliva freezes inside your whistle making it impossible to blow or when attempting to pull ones flag out tucked deep in your pants with gloved hands. [Officials will often use 2 or 3 whistles during the course of the game tucking the used whistle inside your pants to allow any saliva buildup to melt before being reused. In some instances, there is not even a whistle at the end of a play.] The new black pants, which replaced the knickers some years ago, and weather shirts are intentionally oversized to allow the officials to wear extra clothing under their uniforms but I can tell you from experience it still gets really cold. Coleman's crew managed to keep their focus and worked a fairly incident and criticism free game. Play Situations
There were three very interesting calls from the Steelers - Bengals game. In the second quarter, a Bengals fumble was picked up by a Steelers player who appeared to fumble the ball during his runback. The ball was picked up by a second Steelers player who advanced the ball into the end zone and began to perform a previously choreographed dance (if that is what it is called) for which the Steelers were correctly flagged for Unsportsmanlike Conduct. When the play was reviewed, it was ruled that the original Steelers player had been down by contact before his fumble and as a result any further advance was wiped out. However, the Unsportsmanlike Conduct foul was still assessed at the spot where the Steelers player was ruled down as 15 yard fouls (Personal fouls and Unsportsmanlike Conduct fouls) are not ignored in such a situation even though the play was deemed to have ended earlier.
Late in the 3rd quarter, Steelers LB Shazier tackled Cincinnati RB Bernard after Bernard had caught a pass and the tackle caused some controversy. From what I can see after reviewing the tape multiple times, Bernard catches the ball and takes 2 or 3 steps while turning upfield to run. At that point, he is considered a runner and not a defenseless player. Shazier comes in high and ducks his head to the left while his helmet made glancing contact with Bernard's head/chest area knocking Bernard to the ground and out. Shazier is clearly attempting to wrap up Bernard although that action would have been moot if Bernard had been ruled to be a defenseless player. In such a situation, if Bernard was considered a defenseless player, Shazier could have/should have been called for a foul. However, it was ruled on the field that as Bernard had taken more than two steps while in possession of the ball and had completely turned upfield at the time of the contact, he was a runner at the time of the initial contact.
Although some have attempted to make the case that Shazier "speared" Bernard, that term typically applies only to a player that is already on the ground. So the question is whether Shazier illegally contacted Bernard when their helmets collided. As I look at the play, I do not feel that the contact rose to the level warranted a flag as Shazier's head starts off to the side of Bernard's head and it is my opinion that the officials on the field called the play correctly although it is a close, bang-bang play, especially in real time. The play was reviewed to determine if a fumble had occurred and it was ruled that it had and the ball was awarded to Pittsburg at the spot of the recovery. [It is noted that if Bernard had been ruled to not have established himself as a runner, it would have been an incomplete pass and no fumble would have occurred.]
Just inside of 2 minutes in the 4th quarter, Cincinnati LB Vontaze Burfect, who had been out of control since the earlier hit on Bernard, launches himself at a Steelers receiver making contact with the receivers neck and head area. This was an easy call by the BJ who had the play unfold directly in front of him. [It is noted that despite the comments of some that Burfect made contact with his shoulder and not his helmet, the subject is moot as the applicable rule 12-2-7 states that it is illegal to: "forcibly [hit] the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him." [Emphasis added] ] [It is also noted that Burfect has/had a reputation for playing out of control in college and that was one reason that he went undrafted despite having obvious talent.]
Following the hit by Burfect, a number of squabbles broke out on the field and players from both benches as well as coaches came onto the field, the latter to supposedly help to restore order. Although not allowed by rule, often the participation of coaches and assistant coaches tends to defuse the situation as they pull players towards or keep them on their own sideline. In looking at the tape of the incident, it can be seen that many players and coaches have come off their respective sidelines following the event. One of the Steelers Assistant Coaches, Joey Porter, lingered a bit longer than required as the officials attempted to restore order and appeared to have some words with a number of Bengals players (although the game tape from CBS does not appear to show him speaking). Apparently Cincinnati CB Adam Jones took exception with something that was said and tried to get at Porter who was being walked away by Referee John Parry as Parry and two other officials were attempting to get things under control. While attempting to get at Porter, Jones apparently bumped one of the officials drawing a well-deserved flag for Unsportsmanlike Conduct. One of the questions is whether Porter deserved to be flagged as well but apparently the three officials in the vicinity did not feel that he had instigated the incident and were satisfied to just get him back to his sideline. This action by Parry and crew was subsequently echoed by Dean Blandino. College Championship
At the end of the first half of the NCAA Championship game, a clock mix up caused Clemson to use their last time out and placed the on-field officials in an unwinnable position. With about 18 seconds on the clock, Clemson ran a play that resulted in a first down and under college rules the clock should have stopped until the chains were reset and the ball spotted for play by the Umpire or Center Official. Although there were 15 seconds left on the clock when the play was blown dead, the clock continued to run to 12 and then inexplicably was restarted before the ball was spotted and the Referee gave the wind signal. Clemson managed to call a timeout when the clock read 6 seconds and the officials put three seconds back moving it to 9 seconds.
The problem was that the timer was not associated with the Pac-12 officiating crew and instead was more familiar with the NFL rules as the game was played in the Cardinals home stadium. In the NFL, the clock would not have stopped as a result of a first down and the timer apparently failed to realize the difference from the college rules. So he hesitated to stop the clock and then apparently had second thoughts and started it again. Unfortunately for Clemson, the typical college mechanic is that you do not put more than 3 seconds back on the clock at any time that there is a timing problem unless you have exact knowledge of the correct time. The problem that the officials had was that if they stopped the game to reset the clock prior to the Clemson time out, it would have, in effect, given Clemson a free time out and Alabama would have howled. If they let the clock run (as they did), Clemson howled. In such a situation, there was nothing that the on-field officials could do that would satisfy everyone but given the importance of the game you would think that the NCAA or BCS or whoever was responsible would supply a qualified timer knowledgeable in NCAA rules to work the clock.