Kevin SeifertNFL NationClose
- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
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Officiating played its usual outsized role in the 2017 NFL experience, drawing massive attention for controversial calls involving inconsistencies with replay review to the catch rule (again) to an inability to prevent players from targeting each other's brains. But in between, of course, the vast majority of plays were officiated without incident.
What can we say as the playoffs begin?
First, the NFL's officials called almost exactly the same number of penalties -- including those that were declined or offset -- as they did in 2016. The number was 4,044 this season after 4,048 last season, according to the ESPN Stats & Information penalty database.
Second, officials ejected 18 players from games this season, the most in any season since at least 2001. Most were for fighting or contact with an official -- behavior you would expect to disappear in the playoffs but could lead to a season-changing call if it surfaces.
Penalties per game by referee: 2017
Third, the discrepancy of penalty frequency among crews was not as severe as it has been in previous years. As the chart shows, 12 of the 17 crews averaged between 15.6 and 17.4 flags per game. The primary outlier was once again referee Bill Vinovich, whose crew averaged 11.6 per game. Vinovich is not among the four referees assigned to upcoming wild-card weekend games, but he could be a candidate to work in the divisional round.
What follows in this officiating scouting report is a look at the four first-round referees. Keep in mind that the NFL scrambles crews in the playoffs to maximize use of the highest-graded officials at each position from the regular season. Although the makeup will be different, it's the referee who always sets the tone for any crew.
Note: All data is culled either from ESPN Stats & Information or Pro Football Reference. Historical references begin in 1999.
No. 5 Tennessee Titans at No. 4 Kansas City Chiefs
Saturday: 4:20 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/WatchESPN | Game HQ
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Referee: Jeff Triplette | Titans' history in his games: 11-11 | Chiefs' history in his games: 7-9
Triplette has a fairly earned reputation for extended discussions and occasional high-profile gaffes, but his playoff appearance means he graded out among the upper echelon of referees on a play-by-play basis.
A common theme among Triplette's crews has been their strict adherence to roughness and sportsmanship rules. In 2017, Triplette called an NFL-high 40 penalties for either roughing the passer, unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness or taunting. For context, consider that six crews amassed 22 or fewer such penalties. Triplette also ejected three players, tied for the second-most among referees, after disqualifying an NFL-high six players in 2016. On the other hand, he called 39 fouls for offensive holding, the second-fewest in the league.
This will be his first game involving the Chiefs since December 2015.
No. 6 Atlanta Falcons at No. 3 Los Angeles Rams
Saturday: 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC | Game HQ
Referee: Ed Hochuli | Falcons' history in his games: 4-10 | Rams' history in his games: 9-9
The Rams already have seen Hochuli twice this season. His crew worked L.A.'s victories over the New York Giants in Week 9 and the Seattle Seahawks in Week 15, when the Rams won by a combined score of 93-24.
Hochuli's regular-season crew was much friendlier to defensive backs, and more dangerous to wide receivers, than most of the league's officials. It called the league's highest total of offensive pass interference calls (18) and the second-lowest total of defensive pass interference, defensive holding and illegal contact penalties combined (29). That's the kind of discrepancy that will pop out to both teams, regardless of whether Hochuli's postseason crew is scrambled.
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No. 6 Buffalo Bills vs. No. 3 Jacksonville Jaguars
Sunday: 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS | Game HQ
Referee: John Hussey | Bills' history in his games: 1-1 | Jaguars' history in his games: 0-2
This will mark the first playoff game for Hussey, who was promoted to referee in 2015. His crew was among the most lenient in 2017, averaging the fifth-fewest penalties per game (14.8) in the league.
His name surfaced in the news when video showed him checking on Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage after a hit that left Savage concussed in Week 14. Savage returned to the game briefly before being removed to undergo further testing. The NFL changed its protocol this season to encourage officials to inform a team's medical staff when concussion symptoms are observed. Overall, though, Hussey protected quarterbacks this season. He threw seven flags for roughing the passer, tied for fifth-most in the NFL.
No. 5 Carolina Panthers vs. No. 4 New Orleans Saints
Sunday: 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox | Game HQ
Referee: Tony Corrente | Panthers' history in his games: 12-5 | Saints' history in his games: 9-11
In a scheduling quirk, this will be Corrente's first non-preseason game involving the Saints since November 2013. Two of his touchdown calls this season have been reversed amid high-profile controversy over replay and the catch rule, for Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkinsin Week 6 and Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse Jamesin Week 15. His regular-season crew was quick to throw flags on both sides of the passing game, having tossed the league's second-most for defensive pass interference, defensive holding or illegal contact combined (49) and third-most for offensive pass interference (10).
It's also worth noting that his crew called 40 false starts, the second-most in the NFL. You might think a false start is a black-or-white call -- a player either moved early or he didn't -- but some officials are more aggressive than others. Keep in mind that 10 of the 17 crews called 30 or fewer false starts this season.
Officiating was not up to playoff standards this weekend. The NFL needs to fix it.
The league likes to say that the best officials work the playoffs, but that’s not exactly true. There are 17 officials at each position (17 referees, 17 field judges, etc.) and the league typically assigns 10 of them to playoff games. So if you’re the 10th-best referee in a field of 17, you’re hardly “the best,” and yet you’ll get a playoff assignment.
The NFL also doesn’t allow first-year officials to work playoff games, so if the best field judge in the NFL in 2017 was a first-year field judge, he didn’t get a playoff assignment. And the NFL spreads around the best assignments, so an official can’t work consecutive Super Bowls even if he’s the best in the league two years in a row.
All of this means that we weren’t really seeing the best officials on the field over the weekend. And it showed.
Do I need to re-hash the terrible job referee Jeff Triplette and his crew did to kick off the playoffs on Saturday afternoon? Just read what former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira had to say. He called the officiating “horrible” in that game.
But that was far from the only game. We had a referee announce that it was fourth down when it was actually first down — and never turn on his microphone to correct his mistake, although thankfully the crew got it straightened out before the next play. We had a blindside block called a hit to the head and neck area when it was actually shoulder-to-chest. We had the officials forget about a 10-second runoff until the last second, when thankfully an alternate official ran from the sideline onto the field to alert the on-field referee. We had a couple of absolutely terrible spots award first downs when there clearly should not have been first downs. We never had a replay review of the key Panthers interception in the final minutes of their loss to the Saints.
There are always going to be officiating mistakes, but is it too much to ask that the NFL put the best officials on the field for the playoffs? The solution is simple: Only the four best officials at each position should work the playoffs. They should each work one wild-card game, then one divisional-round game. Then the two best should work the conference championships, and the best should work the Super Bowl. None of this “everyone gets a trophy” style of officiating assignments for the 10th-best referee. If you want to reward a longtime veteran ref with a postseason assignment but he wasn’t in the Top 4 at his position, let him work the Pro Bowl.
Until the NFL puts the best officials on the field in the playoffs, expect to see more ugly playoff weekends.
Here are my other thoughts from the wild card round:
Sean McDonough needling Jon Gruden was hilarious. The most entertaining action of the weekend was in the booth in Kansas City, where ESPN’s McDonough repeatedly referred to Gruden as the next coach of the Raiders, and Gruden repeatedly claimed nothing was official. I don’t know why Gruden felt the need to mislead ESPN’s viewers (the Raiders announced shortly after the game that Gruden’s hiring was, in fact, official), but I’m glad McDonough made Gruden sweat.
Matt Ryan is money in the playoffs. I don’t think we talk enough about how well Ryan has played in the postseason. After Saturday’s win over the Rams, Ryan has the second-highest postseason passer rating (minimum 250 attempts) in NFL history. Only Kurt Warner is higher.
The Jaguars’ defense is legit. I know everyone is going to talk all day about how terrible that Bills-Jaguars game was, but the reality is the Jaguars’ defense was phenomenal. Holding any NFL opponent to three points is hard to do. Don’t sleep on the Jaguars pulling an upset in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Kareem Hunt needed more carries. Second-guessing Andy Reid after a playoff disappointment almost feels like piling on at this point, but I have a real problem with Hunt, the Chiefs running back who led the NFL in rushing in 2017, only getting 11 carries in the loss to the Titans. As the Chiefs’ offense really picked up down the stretch, following Reid handing off play calling to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, it was with Hunt as a workhorse: In Nagy’s first three games calling plays, Hunt had 25, 24 and 29 carries. Only giving Hunt 11 carries was a mistake that both Reid and Nagy should answer for.
The new concussion rules weren’t followed for Cam Newton. The league says it is discussing the matter with the Panthers’ medical staff, but what’s to discuss? Newton was hit hard, stumbled around, knelt to the ground and came off the field. The Panthers announced that Newton was checked for a concussion, but he never left the sideline area. The league’s rules could not be clearer: Just 10 days ago the NFL said it would “Require a locker room concussion evaluation for all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” Newton was stumbling and was evaluated for a concussion. By rule, that evaluation had to take place in the locker room, not the sideline. This evaluation was done incorrectly, and the NFL needs to acknowledge it.