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Are NFL referees really favoring or targeting certain teams?

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Patriots have said they are frustrated with the officiating in recent games, especially Sunday night against the Broncos. Was it really an unfair game, and are they targeted?

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve established that officiating has been particularly awful this season. But are there certain teams benefiting or suffering from it? I’m sure you’ve heard the Patriots dialogue, from both the fans and players (and even some analysts), after Sunday’s game. We’ve already established that injuries are not an excuse for the Patriots, but what about the officiating? The officials are targeting Tom Brady and the Patriots. Even Tom Brady told the refs so.

The Patriots aren’t the only team who think the officials aren’t helping them. But what do the stats say? Are there teams the refs are penalizing more, or benefiting less? Here are the season totals according the NFL Penalty Tracker:

Rank Team Plays Rank Against Accepted Count Accepted Yards Rank For Beneficiary Count Beneficiary Yards Yard Differential
1 Denver 1566 9 85 816 31 64 478 -338
2 Atlanta 1567 17 75 762 27 68 468 -294
3 Buffalo 1552 2 104 943 13 79 650 -293
4 Baltimore 1594 8 85 801 22 72 523 -278
5 Tampa Bay 1548 1 109 894 25 70 616 -278
6 New Orleans 1592 4 92 800 19 76 541 -259
7 Seattle 1531 10 81 717 32 61 468 -249
8 Cleveland 1563 7 85 758 14 79 630 -128
9 Oakland 1597 3 92 736 26 69 623 -113
10 Carolina 1618 25 71 579 29 67 532 -47
11 Detroit 1568 28 69 593 30 66 574 -19
12 Chicago 1530 21 74 679 23 72 669 -10
13 Dallas 1472 11 80 619 15 78 615 -4
14 N.Y. Jets 1618 30 65 565 28 68 581 16
15 New England 1615 19 74 701 10 81 719 18
16 St. Louis 1512 5 89 705 21 75 723 18
17 San Diego 1539 13 79 654 16 78 677 23
18 San Francisco 1519 23 73 510 24 72 556 46
19 Cincinnati 1550 12 79 673 8 84 721 48
20 Minnesota 1525 31 65 585 20 76 639 54
21 Houston 1649 18 74 654 7 86 713 59
22 Washington 1525 24 72 596 17 77 661 65
23 Kansas City 1557 29 69 594 18 77 667 73
24 Miami 1589 6 89 721 4 93 795 74
25 Jacksonville 1620 20 74 649 9 83 728 79
26 Green Bay 1570 26 70 594 11 80 718 124
27 N.Y. Giants 1624 16 75 587 5 88 784 197
28 Tennessee 1481 22 73 589 6 88 807 218
29 Pittsburgh 1537 32 64 605 12 80 847 242
30 Philadelphia 1676 14 75 573 3 94 828 255
31 Indianapolis 1647 15 75 591 1 103 922 331
32 Arizona 1538 27 70 536 2 102 906 370
Totals 50189 2506 21379 2506 21379

According to these stats, the Broncos have had the most one-sided officiating of any team in the NFL, being penalized for 338 more yards than they have benefited from. That is 44 yards more than any other team in the NFL. In fact, the Broncos entered the game on Sunday, going 239 plays without their opponents being assessed for a penalty. The Cardinals have benefited the most of any team in the NFL, being awarded 370 more yards in penalties than they have given. The Patriots rank dead in the middle, at 15, only benefiting 18 yards more than they have been penalized.

I’m fine with the Broncos being aggressive and getting penalties, but these numbers don’t even show that’s happening. The Broncos rank 9th for penalties against, and 31st for penalty beneficiaries.

The Broncos have only benefited from five holding calls this season. The league average is over 15.

Offensive holding is one of the most lopsided penalties in the Broncos’ case. The Broncos have only benefited from five holding calls all season, the least in the league, with an average of 15.59 called per team. This is highly suspect considering the Broncos also have the best defensive line in the league. So, narrative that Von Miller and the front seven are being illegally held isn’t unwarranted. On the other hand, the Patriots have benefited from 16 holding calls and been called for 16, right at the league average.

These numbers suggest the Broncos have been the victims of no-calls more than any other team in the NFL. But Patriots fans, players, and analysts are claiming officiating was particularly bad in the Broncos game, so let’s break down each penalty. In this game, the Broncos were penalized 6 times for a total of 46 yards. The breakdown of Broncos penalties are:

  1. Unnecessary roughness on Talib in the 2nd quarter (13:33) for 10 yards. Talib grabbed the jersey and drove a player out of bounds. Not sure this should be considered a personal foul, but it was definitely illegal.
  2. Neutral zone infraction on Miller in the 2nd quarter (12:12) for 5 yards. No argument.
  3. Roughing the passer on Miller in the 3rd quarter (14:17) for 15 yards. This was a stupid penalty. However, the Bears committed almost the identical infraction, and were not called for it last week.
  4. Offensive holding by Mathis in the 3rd quarter (8:11) for 10 yards. No argument.
  5. False start on Osweiler in the 3rd quarter (5:10) for 1 yard. I might add that this is a rarely called penalty on the quarterback that people joke ONLY Tom Brady and Manning can get away with.
  6. Defensive holding on Harris in the 4th quarter (0:15) for 5 yards. This was never reviewed in the broadcast because Belichik was complaining about the excess timeout he didn't understand; for all we know, that could have been an even tackier holding call than what was called on Chung, giving the Patriots an automatic first down with 10 seconds left to put them in field goal range.

The Patriots were penalized 5 times for a total of 47 yards. The breakdown is as follows:

  1. Facemask on Wilson in the 3rd quarter (10:28), undisputed for 15 yards. Wilson tackled CJ Anderson by the facemask on this play, no question.
  2. Illegal use of hands on Vollmer in the 4th quarter (12:34) for 10 yards.
  3. Offensive holding on Jackson in the 4th quarter (11:40) for 9 yards.

    Despite Chris Collinsworth's narrative, this is a good flag. Jackson is tugging on Miller's shoulder pads when he was within arm’s reach of Brady, and then shoves him to the ground. This is blatantly in violation of NFL rule 12, article 4c: "use his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit." I might add that Jackson is the same lineman who injured TJ Ward and Sylvester Williams on a single play. Side note, you can see Derek Wolfe’s facemask being held in this shot, haha.
  4. Offensive pass interference on Gronkowski in the 4th quarter (5:22) for 10 yards.

    Gronk pushed off of Bolden by extending his arm. This is textbook offensive pass interference. Despite what Chris Collinsworth has to say, I don’t know how else to explain it to you other than "this is exactly what offensive pass interference looks like."
  5. Defensive holding on Chung in the 4th quarter (1:25) for 3 yards. This seems to be the call that most Patriots fans are upset about. The rulebook states that the defensive player can use his hands to brace for contact by the offensive player, but Chung used his hands to grab DT’s shoulder pads, which is illegal. It might be considered tacky by some, but it’s still illegal. There is also a screenshot going around of DT grabbing Chung’s facemask during this play, which he did after the holding was made, to brace himself.

In the second quarter Talib and Gronkowski had offsetting penalties, where Talib held the receiver’s back arm, which could also be considered tacky. Again, evidence this was an evenly called game.

The ONLY call that maybe should have gone against the Broncos was a "running into the kicker" call at the end of the 3rd quarter, but in all likelihood that 5 yard penalty wouldn’t have changed anything in the game, it may have even been declined by Belichik because that was an average punt, and would not have given them enough yardage for the 1st down.

Even though this has been resolved, I will explain the clock debacle with 20 seconds left. In order to protect offenses, the NFL has implemented a rule to deal with a defensive injury when the defensive team has no timeouts remaining. If a defensive player is injured, an "excess timeout" is taken until the player can get off the field. This is to prevent teams from faking injuries to stop the clock. The play clock is reset to 40 seconds, but the game clock starts as soon as the ball is set. Tom Brady and Bill Belichik didn’t know this rule, and let over 5 seconds run off the clock at the end of the game. This is exactly the call that the officials should have made, and I applaud them for knowing the rule (really it’s sad that we have to applaud refs for correctly doing their jobs).

Yes, several calls were missed, including an Evan Mathis facemask. So was a facemask against Von Miller, and a holding call on the Brandon Bolden touchdown, where Shane Ray is being held by the shoulder giving Brady just enough time to get off a pass.

I’m sure there were many others that weren’t captured on film, just like every game.

So it doesn't appear the Patriots have been unfairly targeted, but what about single players? Over the whole season, has Gronk been targeted for offensive pass interference more than other receivers and tight ends as he seems to think? He has the most offensive pass interference calls in the league, with 5. Gronkowski also sees one of the highest snap counts in the league, with 734 so far, 4thamong tight ends.

Gronkowski is easily the most targeted (by the QB, not the official) tight end in the league, and ranks 19th overall behind 18 wide receivers. Statistically, this means he is likely to get more penalties called against him than other tight ends in the NFL. Because of his size and strength, pushing off is going to draw more flags than smaller wide receivers.

My point is, the Patriots have no room to complain that they are unfairly targeted. If anything, they benefit from having Tom Brady on their team, who evades unsportsmanlike conduct calls like this one (gif credit from Brandon Perna's hilarious week 13 recap):

Just like injuries is not an excuse for a loss, neither is poor officiating. Even if this had been an unevenly called game, the reaction from Brady, Belichik, and NFL analysts is poor. If the Patriots deserved to win the game, the officiating wouldn't have changed the outcome, especially not one holding call in the endzone. This game is in the past, and we should stop having to defend a well-deserved win. On to the Chargers!