By Ben Austro, FootballZebras.com, special to NFP
This year, the speculation of the postseason assignments seems to be rampant, compared to previous years. For the past decade, regular season officiating crews stayed largely intact, qualifying as a group, with a few substitutions for higher grading officials advancing to the big games. Occasionally, an official would grade too low to be considered and would also be replaced.
This season the playoffs are assigned in a divide-and-merge format. "All postseason assignments are based upon the individual performance of each official at their respective position, without regard to the cumulative performance of an entire crew," said Michael Signora, the vice president of football communications, in an e-mail to us. "This system, as opposed to one that was based in part on crew performance that was in use from 2003-11, was suggested by the union in our recent negotiations as the best way to award postseason assignments, and we agreed."
Officials are ranked based on their written tests and the evaluation of every play each official participated in. If there is a wrong call or a missed call, it is counted as a downgrade. Each year, the NFL claims that the accuracy of calls in its games ranges between 98 and 99 percent. The officials are generally aware of each other's grades, and based on multiple direct and indirect sources that we have checked, the following officials are likely to be assigned to the Super Bowl listed here with number of seasons they have worked, playoffs made, and playoffs missed:
• Referee: Jerome Boger, 9th season, made playoffs in 4 seasons, missed playoffs in 3 seasons
• Umpire: Darrell Jenkins, 11th season, made 6, missed 4
• Head linesman: Steve Stelljes, 11th season, made 5, missed 5
• Line judge: Byron Boston, 18th season made 14, missed 3
• Field judge: Craig Wrolstad, 10th season, made 7, missed 2
• Side judge: Joe Larrew, 11th season, made 4, missed 6
• Back judge: Dino Paganelli 7th season, made 5, missed 1
(The number of years includes this season. Officials cannot work a playoff game in his rookie year or in the first year after promotion to referee, so those are not counted as playoff misses.)
Also, from some of the same sources, Terry McAulay and Bill Leavy scored just below Jerome Boger, and they are likely to head the crews of the two conference title games.
In order to qualify for a Super Bowl position, not only must you be the top in your position, but you have other prerequisites that have to be met, which we will detail in a bit. But suffice to say, a Super Bowl official is one that consistently demonstrates his worthiness for the big game every year.
One of the officiating sources told me that at least two of these seven rumored Super Bowl officials failed written rules tests last year. We analyzed the assignments from last season, and found that three of those officials did not work in the postseason last year. Boger was one of a handful of officials who did not get an on-field or alternate assignment. Darrell Jenkins, who was on Bill Leavy's crew, did not get an assignment, despite the fact that Leavy's crew was assigned to the Giants-Packers divisional playoff game. Likewise, Jenkins did not have an alternate assignment, either. Steve Stelljes worked in the Pro Bowl, which is technically not a postseason game and there are no restrictive criteria for getting that assignment.
In fairness, the difference between officials who get a postseason assignment and those that do not can be very close. But a cut line has to exist somewhere, so the official graded below 10th or 11th place is in the same group as those who finished 17th.
However, it is unusual that three crew members did not qualify for the postseason in 2011, and are graded at the top of their peers in 2012. (It has only happened in the Super Bowls following the 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2009 seasons since the 12-team/11-game playoff format started in 1990.) Equally confusing is that at least three officials from last year's conference championships (top 3) suddenly graded so low that they did not get an assignment. One of those officials who did not get a playoff nod was Ed Hochuli, who qualified for a playoff game every year he was eligible since 1991, with the exception of 2005 (and now this season). Hochuli is working the Pro Bowl this year, a game he has never worked in his esteemed 23-year career, because he kept getting playoff assignments instead.
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Key prerequisite for assignment not met
In addition to being the highest graded official of the season (which takes into account other factors, such as decisiveness, pacing of the game, and professionalism), a Super Bowl referee must meet additional criteria, according to the league office.
• five years’ experience
• worked a conference championship in any position
• three years’ experience as a referee
• officiated a playoff game as a referee
For a moment, picture a game where coaches Rex Ryan and Norv Turner lead the Jets and Chargers into battle for the right to advance to the AFC title game. It may seem like a far-fetched scenario this season, but such a meeting happened in the 2009 divisional playoffs, and up until this coming weekend, it is the last time Boger officiated a playoff game. Boger's playoff game previous to the Jets-Chargers game seems even more implausible today: a Jaguars away game against the Patriots in 2007.
In Boger's case, he has not officiated a conference championship, and thus cannot be included unless the league relaxes the bar of entry. Signora, the league spokesman, assured me, "There is no change to the Super Bowl assignment system."
The rest of the officials
Other officials that are not at the referee position also need five years' experience and a conference championship game. But those officials are allowed to substitute under a 3-of-5 provision: a wild card or divisional game in three of the last five seasons, according to Signora. That provision comes in handy for two of the officials.
Jenkins, the rumored umpire, will just get in, having two divisional round games and a wild card in the last five years. Joe Larrew, at side judge, also has 3-of-5, going back to the 2007 season; prior to 2007, Larrew never made the playoffs in the four seasons he was eligible.
Stelljes, the head linesman, has also missed two playoff appearances in the past five years, but he managed to get a conference championship assignment in 2007.
The remaining officials believed to have a Super Bowl assignment have more solid credentials: Back judge Dino Paganelli -- offspring of an officiating pedigree that has his two brothers, Carl and Perry, in the NFL -- missed only his first year of eligibility. He worked a conference championship game in 2010, and this will be his fifth postseason in a row. Field judge Craig Wrolstad worked a conference championship game last year, and is on a string of six consecutive postseasons.
Line judge Byron Boston seems to have racked up enough experience to share with the others: a staggering seven conference championship games and the only member of this reputed crew to have already worked a Super Bowl (XXXIV, after the 1999 season). In two of his seasons, he pulled down double assignments, which happens frequently for a Super Bowl official, but is extraordinary rare in a non-Super Bowl season. Boger has missed as many postseason assignments in nine years as Boston has in 18.
All working divisional round
As it is commonplace to have a Super Bowl official working in rounds 1 and 2 of the playoffs, all the officials that are rumored for the Super Bowl are working in the divisional playoffs.
• Boger, Jenkins, and Paganelli will be at the Packers-49ers game.
• Boston and Wrolstad will be at the Seahawks-Falcons game.
• Stelljes and Larrew finish the weekend at Texans-Patriots.
If there is an issue in one of the games, the NFL reserves the right to make a substitution before handing out the final assignments. Those finalized assignments will be announced early next week.
Ben Austro is the founder and editor of footballzebras.com. Follow him on twitter: @footballzebras