Having certain biases are inevitable; they’re one of the many traits that make us unique.
In some professions more than others, people are often provided the opportunity to use their creative discretion to make crucial and impactful decisions.

For professional referees in the NFL, choosing to penalize (or not) can oftentimes heavily influence game or even season outcomes. For this reason, to what extent their individual biases impact their decision-making is a particularly important issue for teams, fans, and sports bettors alike.

Using game data from the NFL since 2010, we attempted to identify how and to what extent referee bias plays out in the NFL. Which teams are being penalized the most, what type of penalties are most common, and which referees are the most biased for or against certain teams? Continue to uncover the answers.

Key Takeaways

  • The Las Vegas Raiders have been penalized the most since 2010 (7.87 per game); the New England Patriots have been penalized the least (5.62).
  • Offensive holding (19.3%) has been the most called penalty in the last decade.
  • Jeff Triplette (14.03 penalties per game), Carl Cheffers (14.01), and Shawn Hochuli (13.96) were the most aggressive whistleblowers since 2010.
  • The Indianapolis Colts have experienced the most favorable bias by referees; the Seattle Seahawks have experienced the most unfavorable bias.

Where’s the Love: Biases at the Team Level

Penalties, without a doubt, deflate team momentum and limit potential team success. Which NFL teams have been hurt the most by them?

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It turns out that NFL referees are prone to blowing the whistle against some teams more than others. By a notable margin, the Las Vegas Raiders had the highest number of average penalties (7.87) and average penalty yards (66.7) per game since 2010. In comparison, Las Vegas had nearly 0.6 more average penalties and 6.7 more average penalty yards per game than the next team in line, the Seattle Seahawks.

Referees were certainly less harsh with their whistles when it came to other teams. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NFL team with the fewest number of average penalties (5.62) and penalty yards (50) per game since 2010 is the New England Patriots. While this may be impacted by referee leniency, many would attribute their rule-following behavior to their legendary head coach, Bill Belichick, who has found himself in contention for coach of the year once again this season.

Popular Penalties

Whether the game of football is simply predisposed to having certain penalties occur more than others is up for debate, but the fact remains that this phenomenon happens. Which has consistently been the most common, and which have become more common?

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Since 2010, the offensive holding (19.3%) and false start (17.4%) penalties have been the most common. Following a significant drop-off, defensive pass interference penalties (7.4%) are additionally worth mentioning, considering they are the third-most common.

An additional dimension to this discussion is how the game has changed over time, or at least how players have come to play and referees have come to penalize. The penalty call that has increased the most since 2010 is the ineligible downfield pass penalty, having a 985.1% increase in frequency. Taunting and illegal use of hands have also been called significantly more often since 2010, with the former having a 354.2% increase in frequency and the latter a nearly 160% increase.

Who Makes the Calls?

Now that we’ve identified what calls are most common, let’s take a look at who’s behind these game-changing decisions.

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When it came to average penalties per game, the top three referees were Jeff Triplette (14.03), Carl Cheffers (14.01), and Shawn Hochuli (13.96). Regarding a referee’s most called penalty, though, at 155.8%, Jeff Triplette’s affinity for unsportsmanlike conduct calls was dramatically higher than the league average.

Additionally, Shawn Smith was the most associated with roughing the passer penalties (68.4%), Bill Leavy’s go-to was illegal contact penalties (85.4%), and Brad Allen called illegal use of hands penalties (70.5%) more often over the league average.

Playing Favorites

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We measured bias by looking at the average differences between penalties called and respective penalty yardage given to a team and their opponent. Here is what we found.

Photo: time2play

Overall, it appeared that 17 NFL teams had negative bias scores, and 15 had positive bias scores. The Houston Texans were the closest to achieving a neutral score at -0.03. The top three teams that experienced the most bias in their favor were the Indianapolis Colts (2.55), the New York Giants (1.71), and the Arizona Cardinals (1.62).

The top three teams experiencing the most bias against them were the Seattle Seahawks (-2.27), the Las Vegas Raiders (-2.20), and the Buffalo Bills (-1.37).

Who are the Culprits?

Now that we have identified which NFL teams face the most referee bias, we can explore which specific referees were the most responsible?

Most Partial Referees Favoring a Particular TeamMost Partial Referees Against Particular NFL Teams

At first glance, Clete Blakeman and Tony Corrente may be the referees most prone to bias in the NFL. Each makes multiple appearances throughout the ‘highest bias favoring’ and ‘highest bias against’ categories, and both are within the top three of at least one of those categories. Particularly, Clete Blakeman is the referee with the highest bias favoring rating, at 5.81 for the Atlanta Falcons. Blakeman additionally holds the third-highest bias favoring rating, at 5.64 for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Blakeman, however, makes an appearance in the ‘against’ category as well toward the Cleveland Browns (-4.49). Corrente, on the other hand, holds two top three spots, with one in the ‘favoring’ and one in the ‘against’ category. His 5.66 bias rating for the Vikings makes Corrente the second-most-biased ref ‘favoring’ a team, while his -5.55 bias rating against the Baltimore Ravens makes him the third-most-biased ref ‘against’ a team.

Opinionated Officiating and Damaging Discretions

There’s no escaping the fact that bias exists and influences the decisions of people in any profession that involves the use of discretion. It occurred that there are particular and dramatic trends in the NFL when it comes to penalizing particular teams as well as among those who’re making these calls.

In the case of Clete Blakeman and Tony Corrente’s professional records, as well as the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts’ overall bias ratings, this fact rang true.

Methodology and Limitations

We collected NFL game data from www.pro-football-reference.com for all regular-season games played from Week 1 in 2010 up to Week 8 in 2021. Along with the number of penalties and penalty yardage assessed to both teams for each game, we also collected information regarding the head referee and the exact penalty call.

No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory and is presented for informational purposes only.

Interestingly enough, as observed on the “highest bias favoring” list, the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Los Angeles Rams can’t catch a break; no referees seem to give them any positive bias.
On the flip side, as observed on the “highest bias against” list, the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts seem to have it good with all referees.

Featured Image: time2play
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