Refs' win-probability impact benefits Seattle

September, 25, 2012
9/25/12
2:53
PM ET
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe controversial ending of Monday night's game between the Packers and Seahawks wasn't the first time that the officials had a big impact on a team's win probability.
The NFL games on Sunday and Monday night both ended on plays for which the referees made controversial decisions that determined the winner and loser.

But the good/no-good call on the Baltimore Ravens field goal and the touchdown/interception call on the Seattle Seahawks score aren’t the only calls from the first three weeks that had a major impact on the result of a game.

Please note that all probabilities in this article are based on Stats & Information's NFL win probability model, which is based on 10 years of NFL play-by-play data.

Before those results, the two referees’ decisions that had the highest impact both occurred in the Week 2 meeting between the Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles. Both of those calls went against Baltimore, which ended up losing the game.

Jacoby Jones was called for offensive pass interference after catching a touchdown pass that would have given the Ravens a two-possession lead with 5:29 left in the game. After the call, the Ravens faced third-and-long from the 35.

That call resulted in an 18.3 percent reduction in the win probability for the Ravens. Based on the last 10 years, a team kicking off with 5:29 left and a 10-point lead wins 89.6 percent of the time; a team with a three-point lead facing third-and-22 from the opponent’s 35 has a 71.3 percent chance of winning.

The other high-impact decision was a Michael Vick fumble near the goal line that was overturned and ruled an incomplete pass. The play occurred on the first snap after the two minute warning and the Eagles trailing by six points.

With the ball on the 1, Philadelphia’s win probability was 39.7 percent. If the Ravens had taken possession of the ball, it would have fallen 33.5 percent to 6.2 percent.

Most of the high visibility mistakes this season have been in situations that didn’t have a major impact on the outcome of the game:

• Seahawks granted extra timeout in Week 1: increased Seahawks win probability from 49.3 percent to 52.4 percent
• Raiders aren’t given untimed down in Week 1: decreased Raiders win probability from 0.1 percent to 0.0 percent
• 49ers granted extra challenge in Week 3: increased 49ers win probability from 1.9 percent to 6.8 percent
• Mis-spot of personal foul penalties in LionsTitans and BengalsRedskins games in Week 3: less than 5 percent swing in each instance

This isn’t just an issue that has arisen with the replacement refs. Let’s a take a look at the impact on one of the higher profile blown calls made by a regular official.

In Week 2 of the 2008 season, the Denver Broncos trailed the San Diego Chargers by seven points in the last two minutes. With the Broncos at the Chargers’ 1, the ball slipped out of Jay Cutler's hand as he dropped back to pass and the Chargers recovered the ball.

Ed Hochuli blew the play dead after ruling that the play was an incomplete pass. Replay overturned the call, ruling it a fumble, but since the play was blown dead possession stayed with the Broncos for a third-down attempt from the 10. Two plays later, Denver found the end zone and added a two-point conversion to win the game.

The Broncos were out of timeouts, so if they lost the ball inside the two-minute warning their chances of winning the game would have fallen to 0.7 percent. Even with the blown call, they were down to two chances to convert from the 10-yard-line and had only a 17 probability of winning in regulation or overtime.

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