Thursday, September 5, 2013
Inside Slant: Tracking NFL officials
By Kevin Seifert
One of my goals in this new role is to shed more light on the important but mostly cloaked world of NFL officiating.
The league takes great care to keep its officiating out of the public sphere -- last year's disastrous replacement episode aside. There is, however, a trove of information available that I hope will crack open the door and help us think along with NFL teams that are surely tracking the same data and trends.
The website FootballZebras.com has done a great job in recent years uncovering weekly officiating assignments, which the league doesn't confirm until game day, and covering other officiating news. This post is intended as a kickoff to what I'd like to add to the conversation.
You'll find three monster charts culled from spreadsheets passed along by Henry Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information. (Many thanks to the ESPN.com blog-editing team for the formatting.)
The first is a simple accounting of 2012 penalty frequency by officiating crews. Referees don't necessarily dictate the way their crews call games, but it is really the only way to identify these groups. Not every referee worked the same number of games last season, so the most important column is the average number of penalties (accepted and declined) per game.
The gap between the most-active and the least-active penalty-callers is significant. Jeff Triplette's crew averaged 17.7 penalties per game. Scott Green's crew came in at about two-thirds of that total with an average of 12 per game. That's about a 30 percent difference.
You can also find notable gaps in how crews apply individual penalties, and the discrepancy doesn't necessarily line up the same way as in the first chart. For example, the second chart represents an accounting of how each referee's crew called holding against the offense. Ron Winter's crew meted out more than twice the number of holding penalties as three other crews.
I don't think anything nefarious is going on here, nor is this an indicator of competence. To me, it's a reflection of the subjectivity involved in officiating a football game, and it's no different than baseball umpires with varying strike zones or some NBA officials who seem more whistle-happy than others. We hear more about the latter because, frankly, those leagues haven't been as successful at subordinating their personalities as the NFL.
You'd better believe that NFL teams do their best to understand what differences, if any, they'll get based on their crew assignment in a given game. They might not tell their offensive linemen to hold more when they have, say, Walt Coleman, but, well, the numbers are the numbers.
Finally, it's instructive to take detailed looks at who generates the most penalties. The final chart shows the eight players who committed 12 or more penalties -- accepted or declined -- last season. Seven of the eight are offensive linemen or defensive backs.
What will we do with this information during this season and in this space? Honestly, I'm not sure. In a best-case scenario, we might be able to better project the type of game we're going to see based on a reliable history of the officiating crew that's assigned. But we're not going to force it. Let's see where this takes us. As readers of the former NFC North blog know, I'm available for interaction in the comments section, via my ESPN mailbag or Twitter (@SeifertESPN). Feel free to let me know what you think.