What makes for a well-officiated Super Bowl? In the minds of many, it's a game with minimal flags. On paper, at least, we have a chance for that outcome in Sunday's Super Bowl LIII.
The Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots tied for the NFL's seventh-fewest penalties during the regular season (113). Referee John Parry's regular-season crew ranked right in the middle of the league with an average of 15.8 flags per game, and his first postseason crew threw 10 during the Rams' 30-22 divisional-round victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Generally speaking, penalty totals in recent Super Bowls have fallen below season averages. There were only eight last year in Super Bowl LII, and the average per game since 2010 is 13.3 -- nearly two flags lower than the regular-season average per game (15.2). Crews that "let them play," of course, can sometimes lull themselves into a bad spot. Consider the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago, marred in the fourth quarter when referee Bill Vinovich's crew failed to penalize Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman for pass interference. There are many theories to explain the missed call, but the simplest is that it was an extension of allowing physical play from defenders the entire game.
Psychological hurdles aside, let's take a closer look at what we can glean about the all-star crew Parry will take to Atlanta. It is made up of highly graded officials from six different regular-season crews and should be viewed as the best the NFL has to offer. We'll pair their positional assignments with the major fouls each will be responsible for monitoring.
Roughing the passer
The scourge of September reappeared in the AFC Championship Game when the Patriots gained a key first down on a phantom grab of Tom Brady's face mask by Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones. The referee is responsible for most fouls involving the quarterback, so it should be noted that Parry threw the NFL's second-most flags for roughing the passer during the regular season (11).
Both Super Bowl teams pride themselves on strong pass rushes, both ranking in the top three in pressure rate -- percentage of dropbacks in which the quarterback was sacked, hit or put under duress -- during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Patriots have been far and away the best at delivering pressure during the playoff run, with their 44.9 percent rate ranking No. 1 by almost 5 percent. But the Rams' aggressive pass rush tied for the second-most roughing penalties this season (six), including two from defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. It should consider itself warned.
Parry and umpire Fred Bryan will be the primary officials looking for a foul that experienced a curious one-week blip during the regular season. Parry's regular-season crew threw 59 flags for offensive holding, fifth most in the NFL, while Bryan's threw 54 (No. 8).
The player to watch here is Patriots left tackle Trent Brown, who was penalized seven times for offensive holding during the regular season, tied for the fourth most in the league. As a team, the Rams were penalized the fourth-fewest times for holding (21), but left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan were flagged four times apiece for it.
Watching for false starts, encroachment and neutral-zone infractions will fall to down judge Edgar Camp, line judge Jeff Bergman and Bryan, the umpire. You would think that detecting early movement would be an objective, straightforward endeavor, but there are annually wide gaps in tolerance among crews for these fouls.
Parry's regular-season crew actually called the fewest (31), nearly half of the most active crew (Shawn Hochuli, 57). Bergman was part of Hochuli's crew, but the regular-season crews of Camp and Bryan each ranked in the bottom half of pre-snap flags. Both teams were quite disciplined in the regular season; the Rams committed the second-fewest pre-snap penalties (17), and the Patriots ranked No. 8 (21).
Players to watch here are the Rams' Whitworth and Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon, each of whom was penalized four times for false starts.
Four officials will share primary responsibility for pass interference and related penalties. Of that group, one -- Camp, the down judge -- spent the regular season with a crew that threw a high number of such flags. Serving with Hochuli, Camp was part of a crew that called the fourth-most combined penalties for defensive pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding (44). It also called nine penalties for offensive pass interference, the third most.
On the other hand, side judge Eugene Hall was part of referee Carl Cheffers' crew, which called the fewest combined penalties in pass defense (27), including only nine for defensive pass interference. The other two relevant officials, field judge Steve Zimmer and back judge Terrence Miles, were part of referee Brad Allen's crew, which ranked No. 9 with 38 combined flags.