The glare of NFL postseason has arrived, a time when the league takes extra caution to prevent embarrassing officiating gaffes and hopes -- perhaps against all hope -- that the games are remembered for the plays and not the calls that decided them.
To that end, a pair of significant changes took place this week. Crews were shuffled to ensure that the highest-graded officials at each position work the playoffs. Also, final preparations were made to give vice president of officiating Dean Blandino additional communication with referees to help with what the league terms "administration" of the games.
I've devoted a fair amount of words to the issues involved with Blandino's additional involvement, ethical and otherwise. For now, I thought it would be worth roughing out a scouting report on the referees who will work wild-card weekend.
As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell noted during the regular season, the frequency and emphasis of penalty calls can vary widely between the league's 17 crews. The hope is that the "All-Star" shuffling will minimize the variance. But referees still set the tone for each crew, and what follows is at the very least a baseline for expectations -- one that each team no doubt is studying this week. (The crew assignments were first reported by FootballZebras.com and have since been confirmed.)
The chart shows the average number of total accepted, declined or offsetting penalty calls made by each crew during the regular season. The range is in line with previous seasons but is still notable: About a 30 percent difference between the highest and lowest frequencies.
Referee: Ronald Torbert
2015 with Chiefs: Called seven penalties on Chiefs in Week 4
2015 with Texans: No games
Analysis: In his second year as a referee, Torbert made one of the league's most high-profile mistakes this season. He failed to note Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel reporting as eligible in Week 7, instead calling a penalty for illegal formation. … Torbert's crew was among the league's most active in calling the battle between receivers and defensive backs, finishing in a tie for the most combined offensive pass interference (12) and defensive pass interference (20) penalties. … The crew also tied for the most unsportsmanlike conduct calls (10) and had the third-most offensive holding penalties (62).
Referee: John Parry
2015 with Steelers: Called seven penalties against Steelers in Week 5 and five in Week 14
2015 with Bengals: Called six against Bengals in Week 14
Comment: It's fascinating that Parry will get another crack at a Steelers-Bengals game after struggling to control the chippiness and emotion in the teams' Week 14 matchup. He called a total of 11 penalties in that game, well below the league average for all games. And not surprisingly, Parry's crew finished the season on the low end in "behavior" penalties: personal fouls, roughing the passer, taunting, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct. It combined for 22 such calls, tied for the fourth-lowest in the league. You wonder if he'll need to be more aggressive to keep the rematch under control.
Referee: Walt Coleman
2015 with Seahawks: Called seven penalties against Seahawks in Week 14
2015 with Vikings: Called 10 penalties apiece against Vikings in Week 4 and Week 11
Comment: The Vikings had two of their most-penalized games of the season when officiated by Coleman's crew, both losses (to the Packers and Denver Broncos). They averaged 10 penalties per game under Coleman and 6.07 under all other referees, finishing the season as the league's lowest-penalized team. … Coleman's crew called the league's most penalties for offensive pass interference (13) and tied Torbert's crew for the most combined offensive and defensive pass interference penalties (32).
Referee: Gene Steratore
2015 with Packers: Called nine penalties against Packers in Week 2 and 10 in Week 9
2015 with Redskins: No games
Comment: Steratore's crew stumbled through one of the league's most excruciating games of the season, a Week 11 matchup between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots that included three mistakes the NFL eventually acknowledged. Overall, however, Steratore's crew was the most conservative in the league. It called an NFL-low average of 13.9 penalties per game. … Steratore's crew threw the fewest flags for offensive pass interference (one) and offensive holding (30) penalties and also called the second-fewest "behavior" penalties (20).