King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Do NFL refs sit on their penalty flags in the playoffs? A former zebra says they shouldn't and don't, but that they've missed some calls this year.

By Salon Staff
January 29, 2004 1:00AM (UTC)
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It's a widely accepted idea that NFL officials tend to swallow their whistles during the playoffs, calling fewer penalties in the spirit of letting 'em play. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence for this, including the six calls the league admits officials blew in the AFC Championship Game.

Michael David Smith, writing for Football Outsiders, backs up that everyone-knows-it feeling with a study showing that the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs this year have been penalized an average of 4.6 times for 34.5 yards in the postseason, compared to their regular-season averages of 6.3 penalties and 51.6 yards per game. That's a significant drop, and Smith went back to find roughly similar dips for each year dating back to 2000.


Those numbers would seem to fly in the face of NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira's explanation for the dearth of flags. Pereira, who reviews each week's calls with Rich Eisen on an NFL Network TV show, offered that perhaps teams simply play a cleaner game in the postseason.

Not according to Patriots defenders, who pretty much admitted after the win over the Colts that the Pats had counted on a laissez-faire stance by the officials in their game plan. New England jammed and held and roughed up the Colts' receivers, and figured they'd keep doing so until the flags started flying. They never did. Late in the game Colts tight end Marcus Pollard was held on consecutive third- and fourth-down plays. No call. Those were among the six the NFL said the officiating crew missed. "Mugging's probably a pretty good word," Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel later said of the Patriots' strategy.

"There were some things that happened in the game that I just know in my heart in the regular season would be penalties," Colts coach Tony Dungy told the Indianapolis Star. "Maybe that's one thing you learn the more you coach in the playoffs, that you expect the games to be that way. Maybe we've got to coach a little differently in the playoffs."


Dungy has been an NFL coach for eight seasons in Tampa and Indianapolis. His regular-season winning percentage is a healthy .593, and over the last five years it's a robust .650. But even after two wins this year, his six playoff teams are a mere 4-6, and he's 0-2 in conference championship games. This might be explained by the fact that it's just now dawning on him that "you've got to coach a little differently in the playoffs," something almost every other coach in the world -- not to mention most fans -- takes as a given.

But I digress. Putting that aside, why do officials call the playoffs differently, and is that a good or a bad thing? I'm generally in favor of a let-'em-play approach. I'd rather see players tussling than officials interrupting the game to march off yards. Most fans would argue for players, not refs, deciding the outcome.

But if officials are going to call the games one way in the regular season and another, more liberal, way in the playoffs, they're still playing a role in the outcome. It's just a less obvious one. A foolish consistency might be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it's just the thing for a football official.


Jim Tunney, who was an NFL field judge from 1960 to '66 and a referee from 1967 to '91, agrees, but he says it's not always possible. He says officials are reminded at playoff time not to overofficiate. "They call it a Super Bowl call," he says. "Make sure it's a good call when you get to the playoffs. You should make sure of that anyway. I don't think that's a philosophy that should change in the playoffs."

Tunney says he always reminded his crews, even in the regular season, to be "110 percent sure" of a call before making it. But human nature has a way of taking over. "I think what happens is that during the season, like a lot of other things in life, when you do it every single week, same thing, you get relaxed about it," he says. "But in the playoffs you're reminded of it because we're talking about one team going on and the other team going home. It's more important than during the season."


Tunney works now as a professional speaker on leadership, team building and customer service issues through Jim Tunney Associates, though he still slips into the first person when talking about NFL zebras. And while he insists officials don't consciously lock up their penalty flags, he says this year's playoffs were a little too flag free.

"I thought it was more loose than it should have been," he says. "I thought there should have been more calls than we made, and we let them get away with some things. As I watched it, particularly on the pass interference, there's some holding of receivers that for some reason they missed. Why they missed it, whether it's a philosophy of letting it go or the official just didn't think the call was there, that's what you've got to think about."

I wonder if similar looseness has played a part in the dominance of defensive teams in the last few years. Not since the 1999 season, when the Rams won the Super Bowl, has an offensive powerhouse been champion. Most of the rules changes of the last two decades have benefited the offense, and Tunney says the toughest call for a football official is pass interference and violation of the five-yard chuck rule. If those rules are being downplayed, it might swing the balance back the defense's way.


One last note on Tunney: He holds no position with the NFL, but he served on commissioner Paul Tagliabue's Officiating 2000 Committee and each year, "as a fan," offers the league suggested rule changes. The Pebble Beach, Calif., resident has agreed to lend his expertise to this column on NFL officiating questions from time to time.

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