An Alternative View on the Officiating Debacle

Part of the problem has nothing to do with the replacement refs. It’s just the rules. The number of penalties is up so far this year--just over one additional penalty per game, or about 8%. It might not be just because the replacement refs suck (which they do), but because they are trying to interpret the rules to the letter. Sure they blow calls and miss a few calls, but the outrage is somewhat overblown. Regular refs are human and blew game-swaying calls too, but do it with supreme confidence and authority, so everyone buys it even when we don't like it.

In general, I don't like penalties at all. It breaks up the flow of the game, and most of them are so subjective that fans of the penalized teams always feel aggrieved. And even when penalties favor your team, there's something about it that feels cheap. Plus, with all the complex rules and reviews, the NFL seems like it's run by a bunch of lawyers. Wait, what?...Oh. It all makes sense now...)

Here's what I think the problem is. The NFL has a yardage inflation problem. Offenses fly up and down the field with ease in the modern NFL. A generation or two ago, a 10 or 15 yd penalty was a more severe blow. These days, not so much.

So the level of pain might need to be increased. For example, holding might need to be a 15 yd penalty now. Pass interference might need to include an extra 10 yds. Perhaps personal fouls should be 20 or 25 yds. Helmet-to-helmet violations might need to be 30 yds. Yes, those are stiff consequences, but we'd ultimately see far fewer flags, and the game would flow so much better. On net there might be fewer total penalty yards despite the stiffer yardage consequences, because players would be more reluctant to hold, interfere, etc...

Think of it this way: In the 1970s a speeding ticket might have cost about $30. If it were still just 30 bucks in 2012, people would be far more reckless on the road because of inflation. A $30 fine just isn't as painful in 2012 as it was in 1972. The NFL has a yard-inflation problem, so just as the states have to raise the price of a speeding ticket to maintain the same level of deterrence, the NFL needs to raise the pain of rule violations.

Just thinking out loud.

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17 Responses to “An Alternative View on the Officiating Debacle”

  1. Measure says:

    If there is a yard inflation problem, maybe we should increase what you need to get a first down to 15 instead of 10 yards? How about making the field longer?

    I mean, if you are going to make changes to penalties to cope with yard-inflation, you might as well look at other aspects as well.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I'd settle for laying off of all the illegal contact penalties myself. If you can't light up a receiver in the middle of the field, then at least let the cornerbacks grapple with them. Nobody is getting a concussion from a jersey tug. I personally dislike the fact that the QB has such a massive impact on the game, especially in a team sport that involves twenty-one other starters (plus special teams). Having a complete team no longer means as much--it's all about who has the elite passing game. It's just weird to see teams with poor defenses go grab the 1 seed in the playoffs.

    I've always wondered why a false start is only five yards. Defensive offside is excusable, but false start on the offense means somebody made a very avoidable and fundamental error, someone who presumably should know exactly what the snap count is going to be.

  3. Tangotiger says:

    On the other hand, if you make the penalty too severe, the refs won't want to call it.

    How many total yards worth of penalty would you like?

  4. JD says:

    I think that you identified the main problem with this approach: many penalties are subjective. For instance, it's often said that holding could be called on every play. I don't want to see harsh penalties imposed on subjective judgments; that would give the refs too much influence and would do little to reduce penalties.

  5. Steve says:

    Alright, someone follow up on Brian's research agenda. We'll model linemen as holding when the benefit of holding B > pP where p is the prob. of flag and P is the cost of the penalty. WP seems like the most reasonable way to measure P but maybe EP would be better. Since the penalties are issued in yards the actual cost of the penalty varies a lot with field position (and time of game for WP) so that might help estimate how rates of holding would change if we changed the penalty to be stiffer. Unfortunately the benefits from holding with increase and decrease with field position, probably largely in tandem with the costs so we don't have a good identified model to study--variation could be driven by increasing costs or decreasing perceived benefits.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The main problem with this IMO is simply the facts that D's will be terrified of these penalties and become even softer, and the game truly will become Madden.

  7. Phil Birnbaum says:

    I read research a few years ago that showed that increasing penalties (for crime, not football) doesn't have much effect. What DOES have effect is increasing the probability of getting caught.

    If the problem then, is that enforcement is arbitrary, increasing the penalties might not help much. Rather, it might just frustrate both teams more, as the inconsistency will have a bigger effect on game outcomes.

    For flagrant, deliberate violations that aren't caught, how about enforcing them later after video review? I know those aren't the big problem, like they are in hockey (where a violent slash is missed by the refs) ... but if a player knows he'll be cited eventually, even not on that play, that would be a strong disincentive.

    You could count them all up at the half, and apply the net result to the kickoff, or something.

    Just the flagrant ones that were missed, I'm talking about here.

    For the less-flagrant ones, you could probably do it after the game, and keep a running count, and fine the teams at the end of the season. That way, a player who gets away with a lot will at least cost his team *something* for those missed calls.

    Of course, the team might be happy that the player got away with so much ... but they're happy now, and this way at least they'd have to pay for it, which would make that player less valuable to them.

    I guess, in summary, my view is: why should a violation go completely unpunished if the refs don't happen to notice it immediately? Doesn't work that way for murder or robbery.

  8. Will H says:

    @ Phil

    I have read the same research and didn't even think of it until you brought it up in the comments. I think that's a great example of how the league would react.

    I think your proposed implementation maybe needs work though. Finding a way to increase the probability of being caught should be done in another way, rather than after the fact. While I don't have the perfect solution, one obvious solution would be expanding instant replay capabilities to penalties and increasing the ref staff manning the camera's. Perhaps further down the line image recognition software could be used to focus on each player and be programmed to flag player to player interactions that are fouls.

    However, when increasing the probability of being caught, you then have to evaluate the effects on the game. If holding could be called on every play, perhaps the fact that it's such a large pentalty in the first place needs to be evaluated if it's such an integral part of the game. As it stand right now, referee's most often only call holding that is directly involved with the play and ignore most backside shenanigans.

    This type of judgement would need to be applied to all the rules because nobody wants the side effect of increasing the probability of being caught in an effort to decrease the incentive to committ penalties be to actually increase the number of penalties called that would never have been called in the original system.

  9. John Bergan says:

    I'm still waiting for instant replay to incorporate multiple screens simultaneously, a la the TV show "24."

  10. Brian Burke says:

    Phil-Interesting point. I wonder if harsher sports fouls would be more effective than criminal punishment because there is such immediacy to them. There is also a strong social peer effect, where individual violations create pain for the entire team.

  11. Steve says:

    I think stronger penalties would work more than higher rates of flagging penalties. People tend to respond to what is salient and if it were widely published and discussed on TV that the yardage went up then people might respond. If the prob. went up it probably would have an impact, but only after time for players to "learn"/believe that the probability did go up. This is all relative to what one would expect with the baseline assumption of "rationality" where all that matters is (prob x pain) of penalty.

  12. Greg Szalkowski says:

    Brian,
    Thank you for all of the informative information. I do not feel that the number of penalties this year is substantially different that any other year in the past decade as the mean number of penalties per game in the first three weeks is well within one standard deviation.

    Year Mean penalties per game
    2002 13.2609
    2003 15.4783
    2004 14.2609
    2005 15.5870
    2006 12.3261
    2007 11.4583
    2008 12.3617
    2009 12.3333
    2010 13.1489
    2011 13.0417
    2012 13.6250

    The question now that the regular referees are back is who is everyone going to blame after the next controversial call?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Or instead of ratcheting up the yards of a penalty, perhaps stiffer penalties for multiple offenders, such as:
    First holding: 10 yards.
    Second holding: 10 yards + offending player sits for remainder of possession.
    Third holding: 10 yards + offending player sits for remainder of game.

  14. Steve M says:

    Building on what Phil and Brian said: Football penalties are further different from criminal penalties because criminals don't have coaches telling them how to live their lives. Football players have coaches who instruct them down to the finest detail, based in part on the possible penalties that could be incurred from using a certain technique. Eg, I was taught from the earliest days to grab a rusher's jersey or the bottom of the shoulder pads when blocking - as long as you keep your hands in, no one will call it. If you're looking at 20 yd holding penalties, coaches might not teach that.

  15. Brian Burke says:

    Good point, Steve. But at the rate this league is going, soon they'll make offensive holding legal.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Re: Harsh penalties.

    Perhaps the harshest penalty in sport is in soccer. With penalty kick success between 75% and 80%, and with average scoring being a little under 3 goals per game in most top flight leagues, a penalty is a game changer. The result: only the most egregious fouls in the box are called.

    Pass interference penalties are already as stiff as they can be. Interference in the goal area is almost like a soccer penalty kick, as the chances of scoring a TD from 1st and goal on the one are quite high.

    What could be done with penalties is matching the penalty with the result that would have occurred in the absence of the foul. This is already the case for defensive pass interference, grounding, illegal forward pass (passes crossed the LoS). For offensive holding on a QB dropback, perhaps it could be treated it as a sack: -10 yards and loss of down. In the goal area, it's already like this with a safety awarded.

  17. Brian Burke says:

    A few points. You say that "only the most egregious fouls in the box are called" as if it's some passive event of nature. How and which fouls are called is up to the league.

    But I think you inadvertently made the case that very harsh penalties for infractions would likely lead to lots of flopping.

    Lastly, if all a penalty does is replace the result with what would have happened without the infraction, then it does nothing to deter the violation. If I steal your money and the worst that happens to me is that I have to pay you back, I risk nothing by doing it. And there is a chance I won't be caught at all.

    Because the detection rate is not 100% for any infraction, the penalty must be stiffer than the counterfactual outcome to be a rational deterrent.

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