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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 1

Jim Harbaugh gets asked what his deal is.

For the past few years, I have written a weekly in-season article for the New York Times’ football blog, The Fifth Down. We are teaming up again this year and below is an excerpt from some thoughts I had on the replacement refs:

It was an uneventful Week 1, in a good way, as the N.F.L. replacement referees did not steal much attention from the players on the field.

There were the usual complaints and borderline calls, including a flag thrown on a textbook block in the back by Green Bay on Randall Cobb’s touchdown return against San Francisco on Sunday. Instead, the referees picked up the flag, and the Packers’ score counted. In Arizona, an inexcusable gaffe allowed Seattle to have four timeouts as they frantically attempted to tie the game. But both the Cardinals and the 49ers won, muting any cries about the replacement officials.

It’s difficult to test whether the replacement referees were any different than the regular crews. Tests work best with objective data, and the performance of referees is inherently subjective. But we do have some numbers to go by.

Some have argued that the officiating crews let defensive backs play more physically than the regular officials have allowed in recent years, thinking that the replacements were loath to throw huge flags in key situations. But in that infamous final minute in Seattle, the referees flagged Arizona for defensive pass interference on two key plays. In fact, there were 29 defensive pass-interference penalties called by the referees in Week 1, the most during an opening week since at least 2000. Over the last 10 years, there have been 130 such penalties called during the opening weeks of N.F.L. seasons, or 13 per year.

Despite the subjective arguments, replacement officials called defensive pass interferences more than twice as frequently as the regular crews have done in Week 1. Maybe coaches were instructing their defensive backs to play more physically, hoping that the referees would be afraid to throw the flag. Regardless, the evidence in no way supported the idea that the replacements were letting defensive backs get away with more.

What about penalties over all? On average, over the last 10 years, 208 penalties have been called in Week 1. With the replacement referees over the last week, there were 206 penalties, in line with historical averages. Penalty yardage was slightly up, most likely as a result of more defensive pass interference calls, but that metric was also in line with norms.

You can read the full article, here.

Since then, Mike Kania, who refers to himself as the code junky for Pro-Football-Reference and the other Sports-Reference websites, sent me some additional data. The table below shows the number of each type of penalty called in week 1 of the 2011 season and week 1 of the 2012 season1, along with how many penalty yards were associated with each penalty. In the far right three columns, I’ve shown the difference between the two seasons.

Penalty2011 Count2011 Yds2011 Yd/Pen2012 Count2012 Yds2012 Yd/PenDiff CountDiff YdsDiff Yd/Pen
False Start412065401964.91100.1
Offensive Holding373549.6424029.6-5-480
Unnecessary Roughness1521814.579914.181190.4
Delay of Game1365512605150
Illegal Block Above the Waist131289.888010548-0.2
Defensive Offside1155514705-3-150
Defensive Pass Interference88310.42632112.3-18-238-1.9
Neutral Zone Infraction7344.99455-2-11-0.1
Defensive Holding63055255150
Illegal Contact6294.8155524-0.2
Unsportsmanlike Conduct5651311515450-2
Horse Collar Tackle45112.821682354.8
Illegal Formation420521052100
Ineligible Downfield Kick42051553150
Offensive Pass Interference44010330101100
Roughing the Passer45614811214-4-560
Illegal Use of Hands31553258.30-10-3.3
Offside on Free Kick31551552100
Defensive 12 On-field2105155150
Face Mask (15 Yards)2301544611.5-2-163.5
Illegal Shift210500-210-
Intentional Grounding23015112121183
Roughing the Kicker216800-216-
Illegal Crackback1151500-115-
Illegal Substitution1553155-2-100
Ineligible Downfield Pass15500-15-
Personal Foul1151546015-3-450
Running Into the Kicker15500-15-
Fair Catch Interference00-11515-1-15-
Illegal Motion00-155-1-5-
Interference with Opportunity to Catch00-23015-2-30-

I’ll let the reader draw his or her own conclusions in the comments.

  1. I’m not sure why Mike and I have slightly different numbers on defensive pass interference penalties; it might be that 29 were called and 26 were enforced (i.e., 3 were declined), but I haven’t investigated to see if that’s the case. []
  • Andrew

    If anyhting, I saw pass interference called to much as opposed to not enough. Of course, I only watched three of the games (Packers-49ers, Bears-Colts, and Ravens-Bengals), but I still saw at least three flags that should never have been thrown for pass interference, mostly when a corner made a really great play on a ball on a slant route. And between the Cardinals-Seahawks call and the poor enforcement of the rules at the closing of the Chargers-Raiders (both of which had the potential to change the outcome of those games), I’d say we have some really big issues to look at in the coming weeks with these replacement refs.

    • Richie

      I didn’t get to watch too much football this week, but I was watching a bit of the Was-NO game and there was a pass interference call that I thought was bad, and probably ended up being critical.

      Washington led 20-14 early in the 3rd quarter. On 4th and 1, Washington threw a pass into the end zone and it fell incomplete. Roman Harper was called for PI and Washington got the ball on the 1 and then scored a touchdown, extending its lead to 27-14.

      They showed one replay and the analyst said he didn’t see any PI. (I didn’t see it either.)

  • Pope

    I’d be interested in seeing additional data, to be honest. While we don’t have more games for this season, up to third week in previous years might be a decent indicator (as players continue to shake off the cobwebs, focused, etc.). Also, more than just one year’s data would be nice, too.

    Also, an interesting note is that the difference in total yardage is 63 more yards being given this year as opposed to previous years (and on average, 4 yards less per penalty)

  • Richie

    I can’t get enough of the N.F.L.

  • Andy

    How about a more simple analysis? Replacement refs seem easily intimidated by home crowds and are leading to higher percentage of home teams winning.