An encouraging and fairly remarkable admission came forth Sunday morning from an unlikely source: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Speaking to reporters in Minnesota, Goodell made clear that he and the league office are not thrilled with the statistical inconsistencies among officiating crews. He even suggested a reasonable solution!
I've been fascinated for years by the significant discrepancies in total penalty calls as well as within individual penalty categories. As a season advances, it becomes clear which crew is more likely to nail a team for a violation and which one will let it go. In some cases, as I'll demonstrate below, we see crews who make eight or nine times as many calls for a particular penalty than other crews.
"We see that there is a range from high to low as far as the number of fouls that have been called," Goodell said. "What can we do to try to make sure that is done consistently? There should not be as much of a range. Obviously, some of that, as you know, is based on the game. If fouls are occurring, they should call more fouls. Over a season, that should start to become pretty level."
Consider referee Jerome Boger's crew. As the chart shows, it entered Week 10 leading the NFL by calling an average of 20.8 penalties -- accepted, declined and offsetting -- per game. It also had made a league-high 21 calls for what I call "behavior penalties." (Personal fouls, taunting, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct.) That's more than three times as many as the crew with the lowest total of such calls.
So it wasn't surprising to see Boger make a letter-of-the-law call Sunday against Washington Redskins cornerback Chris Culliver, whose right forearm made contact with the neck area of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen during a game-changing play in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. The contact was not severe, but Boger enforced a 2015 update to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b-1) that prohibits players from "forcibly hitting" a defenseless player's head or neck area with the "helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder" during the process of an interception.
The unnecessary roughness penalty wiped out Culliver's 75-yard interception return in a game that was tied at 14. The Panthers finished the possession with a touchdown en route to a 44-16 victory. Boger's crew finished the game with 24 total penalty calls against a pair of teams that entered Week 11 with two of the NFL's seven-lowest penalty totals.
The issue is not so much that Boger strictly imposed a rule but that other officiating crews seem less likely to do the same. Would every crew have seen the contact as "forcible?" The numbers tell us no.
To be clear, some variance, of course, is unavoidable as long as humans officiate sporting events. We accept as much in other sports, be it different strike zones among baseball umpires or a range of foul frequency from referees in basketball.
In some cases, as Goodell noted, the efficiency of teams -- or lack thereof -- can be responsible for penalty rates. Talent levels vary across the league. Some are better at avoiding penalties than others. But over time, that variance should probably even out among crews who migrate around the league during the season. What I've found in the past few years of watching this is that it does not.
Below are a sample of ranges among crews in significant penalty calls entering Week 10, courtesy ESPN Stats & Information. These are the numbers Goodell had available to him as he made his comments. Go ahead and take a look, and then we'll consider the merits and flaws of his suggestion to improve them.
High: 17 (Clete Blakeman)
Low: 6 (Tony Corrente, Jeff Triplette)
Defensive pass interference
High: 17 (Ronald Torbert)
Low: 4 (Brad Allen, Blakeman, Triplette)
High: 26 (Tony Corrente, Craig Wrolstad)
Low: 10 (Brad Allen)
Illegal use of hands
High: 10 (Corrente)
Low: 1 (Wrolstad)
High: 40 (Boger, Triplette)
Low: 19 (Steratore)
Offensive pass interference
High: 11 (Torbert)
Low: 0 (Steratore)
Delay of game
High: 9 (Allen)
Low: 2 (Hussey, Morelli)
High: 5 (Blakeman)
Low: 0 (eight crews)
Roughing the passer
High: 9 (Boger, Triplette)
Low: 1 (Brad Allen)
High: 21 (Boger)
Low: 6 (Cheffers)
Penalties don't always fall along these rates, of course. Sunday's NFC North matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings featured six offensive holding penalties. Referee Walt Coleman's crew had entered the game with 25 such calls, the fifth fewest in the league.
Goodell, however, spoke publicly for the first time that I can remember about a suggestion first voiced last January by NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent. Rotating members of officiating crews during the season, Goodell reasoned, could help spread the human bias more evenly and make it more difficult for crews to establish a wide-ranging variance.
The suggestion makes some sense from afar, although there is no doubt the officials themselves won't like it. They consider themselves similar to an offensive line, which usually grows efficiency through continuity over time. It would stand to reason that an operation would run less smoothly among people who don't know each other and aren't used to working with each other.
On the other hand, familiarity also could breed unintended bias. Shaking up the people involved could shake out the bias. To the extent possible, no game should be impacted by the individual proclivities or interpretations of officials.
The solution isn't perfect, but it's encouraging to see that the league recognizes what has seemed apparent to third-party observers. It's a start.