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.
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 Historical references begin in 1999.
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 have 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.
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.
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.
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-Jenkins in Week 6 and Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James in 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.