What the Return of the NFL Refs Really Means

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images Bill Belichick

Dang. Just as we got in all the release forms and started printing out our new REAL REFEREE MID-’60S BEAT magazines with Mike Carey and Ed Hochuli as the first centerfolds, the NFL finally capitulated and came to terms with the league’s professional referees on a deal that will have them back in the fold starting tonight in Baltimore. Our (three-week) long national nightmare is finally over. Phew.

Of course, it’s probably safe to say that we can expect some obvious changes from these more experienced referees. Timeouts will be limited to about three per half per team. Rote enforcement of basic rules will not require lengthy conferences. And, yes, chances are a bad call will not directly change the outcome of a game for at least a week or two. We are blessed to live in this exciting old world yet again.

What about the more nuts-and-bolts stuff, though? How will the return of the old referees materially change the mechanics of the average football game? To answer that, you need to know what sorts of penalties and calls were being made on a per-game basis by the replacement refs while being able to compare that to the work done by the professionals over the past several seasons. With the help of the penalty data available at pro-football-reference.com, that’s exactly what we’ve done for you.

First and foremost, you can expect shorter games. ESPN Stats and Information notes that the average game time from the first three weeks of this 2012 season has been three hours and 16 minutes, which is 10 full minutes more than the average game from the first three weeks of 2008-11. That may be skewed a bit by the fact that there’s been four overtime games during the first three weeks, which is almost twice the average number of overtime games that occurred during the first three weeks of those previous seasons. Either way, fans should expect games to end a few minutes earlier from here on out, a welcome respite for those who spent so much time with the Jets and Dolphins on Sunday that Stockholm Syndrome set in.

Games are also likely to feature, on the whole, fewer penalties. The average NFL game this season has featured 13.7 penalties, a 12.4 percent rise on the 2008-11 average of 11.9. Part of that difference owes to the fact that teams are running more plays than ever before. The average game so far this season has featured 126.6 plays, continuing a steady rise up from 123.8 plays per game in 2008. More plays mean more opportunities for penalties, but even after accounting for those additional chances for yellow beanbags, the penalty rate’s still likely to drop with the old refs.

Which penalties are likely to pop up less frequently? Well, there are a few obvious infractions that have been the subject of scrutiny. They include:

  • Personal Fouls, which have been called nearly twice as frequently in 2012 as they were during games over the prior four campaigns. On average, one out of every two games this season has seen a generic “personal foul” penalty called on a player; from 2008-11, that occurred once every four games. You might wonder whether this is just a question of semantics and how the referees report their penalties, but none of the specific personal fouls (unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct, etc) have seen a noticeable decline in their rate of reporting. Do note, though, that these figures do not include penalties that were declined or that were part of offsetting calls; it’s entirely likely that refs are calling personal foul penalties on one side in situations where the traditional refs would normally give one to both sides. An expected decline in the amount of post-play chatter and shoving matches with the more respected set of refs is also likely to bring this figure back down.
  • Defensive Pass Interference is another candidate to chill. DPI calls per game have increased by more than 75 percent, as the average game has gone from featuring 0.7 accepted DPI penalties to 1.25. In our experience, this one’s almost totally on the refs; we’ve been far more likely to see a defender produce great pass coverage and get called for PI than to see a defender mug a receiver and get away with it over the first three weeks. Some of these disappearing DPI calls will be the result of better judgment from referees downfield, and others will likely be turned into Offensive Pass Interference flags. OPI is down more than 22 percent this season, and it’s not because receivers stopped pushing off.
  • Defensive Holding, likewise, is up 41.6 percent from its four-year average. Otherwise known as, “Golly, I really don’t want to call another pass interference penalty when I’m not totally sure one just happened,” it won’t be called as frequently the rest of the way.
  • Roughing the Kicker has already been called four times this year, including three times last week. Last year, it was only whistled seven times all season. Don’t be surprised to see more “Running Into The Kicker” calls from referees, and expect the professionals to properly identify a dive or two and not throw the flag at all.

And if you’re looking for a penalty that the experienced referees might call a little more frequently? Make sure to pick up the illegal shift in your referee fantasy league, because it’s gone essentially unchecked in the league so far this season. Illegal shift calls are down 73.7 percent over last year, and while it seems like the Broncos have a half-dozen of them each game, illegal formation is down just under 34 percent.

All of these changes seem to point to less scoring, particularly the likely impending declines in DPI rates and the increase in illegal formation/shift calls. That might only mean a point or so per game, but that point’s very valuable if you happen to live in a town where gambling is legal.

Of course, these macro league-wide effects are almost impossible to track with the human eye over the course of a single game. The 7 percent increase in false starts, the league’s most frequently called penalty, only resulted in one additional false start every six contests or so. We’ll check back later in the season to see if these experienced “new” referees resemble themselves from 2008-11 or their replacements from these first three weeks.

Filed Under: NFL

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell