Thursday, September 27, 2012

2012-09-27: NFL Referee Kerfuffle

For the first three weeks of the 2012 NFL season, replacement officials have refereed the games due to an ongoing labor dispute between the referees and the NFL. Every fan of a team that has been on the losing side of a call has voiced their opinion on the abilities of the replacement referees. Even Jon Stewart had something to say about the labor dispute.

This past Monday night during the Seahawks - Packers game, a controversial call essentially determined the winner of the game. This call was the powder keg that blew open the dam of angry recriminations and complaints directed at the replacement referees and the NFL. This was somewhat amusing to me as the people complaining seem to forget about all of the mistakes the regular referees appeared to make in all of the previous years. In 2008 one of the best referees in the NFL, Ed Hochuli made a rather horrendous call. I have to give him respect for owning up to it and apologizing. NFL fans have always complained about the officiating, warranted or not.

Seeing as how I have been collecting NFL statistics for a number of years, I decided to see what the data could tell me about the replacement referees performance. First I wanted to see if there was a disparity in the number of penalties called by the referees during the first three weeks of this year compared to the first three weeks of other years.

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 average number of penalties appears to be consistent with the previous decade.

One concern that I read about was that the replacement referees were local and would favor the home team. Indeed one referee was removed from his assignment after some of his Facebook posts described him as a Saints fan. Just one more reason to watch what you release on social media.
So, have the home teams done better this year than others?

Year Home Wins
2002 23
2003 25
2004 26
2005 29
2006 21
2007 30
2008 28
2009 25
2010 27
2011 31
2012 31

Looking at the number of home team wins in the first three weeks of each season shows that 31 wins in 2012, while a little higher than average and exactly equal to last year is nowhere even close to a statistical anomaly. This leads me to think about what Vegas thinks about the whole situation. The collective intelligence of the NFL fan population realized by the Vegas Spread has been the focus of much of my research.

ESPN and other sites are reporting that over $100 million dollars was lost as a result of the controversial call on Monday night. How far off from reality has the Vegas line been this year compared to the past 20 years?

This figure shows the average difference and standard deviation between the Vegas betting line and the actual Margin of Victory over the first three weeks of each year. Negative numbers indicate that the either the visitor performed better than expected or the home team was favored more than they should have. 2012 is a little less than -2, so the the argument could be made that the NFL fans favored the home teams a little more than they should have. The key takeaway is that the results are well with normal values and maybe even a little more consistent than any other season in the past two decades.

This little experiment did not really prove anything other than the first three weeks of this season have not been statistically different than any other season in the past decade. Things being what they are, people will still find something to complain about and the search for someone to blame will always be successful.

The news is reporting that starting tonight the regular referees will be back and all will be well with the world. The question I leave you with is after the next controversial call, who will they blame?

-- Greg Szalkowski

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