It looked like Clete Blakeman was about to do it. With just more than two minutes left in a 31-26 game, the head referee of the NFC title game started to reach for his flag to call what was an obvious offensive hold by Green Bay’s Rick Wagner on Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett.
But Wagner let go enough and Blakeman stopped his motion for the flag as Aaron Rodgers scrambled and ultimately threw an incomplete pass on third-and-goal from the 8.
That moment was a perfect microcosm of both the 2020 NFL season and the perception of playoff football. Officials threw fewer flags this season than any other in the previous decade — especially on holding penalties — and the idea they “let them play” had plenty of life last Sunday at Lambeau Field. Well … until that pass interference call at the end, anyway.
So after a season with fewer whistles than before, should we expect the same on Feb. 7 when the Chiefs and Buccaneers meet in Super Bowl LV? I crunched the numbers this week and spoke to CBS rules analyst and Super Bowl LII referee Gene Steratore to find out.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t (expect the same),” Steratore said. “If the numbers are down and that has been by maybe some of the training and discussion on the levels of when they’re calling fouls. I would expect that the same trend would finish through the Super Bowl as well.”
The 2020 regular season saw 11.24 penalties per game, which was the second-lowest total since 2000. Only the 2008 season, with 11.23 penalties/game, was lower.
From 2000 through the 2019 season, there were 12.8 penalties/game. That signifies a drop of about 1.5 penalties/game in 2020 compared to the previous two decades. But what really stands out is the drop from the previous five years.
From 2015 through 2019, there were 13.5 penalties/game. That means there were 2.25 fewer penalties/game called in 2020 compared to the most recent five years.
“I have always prepared my crew the day before in our pregames to make sure that any fouls that we called in the game the next day were big fouls. You always stressed to make the fouls big,” said Steratore, who officiated for 15 years in the NFL and was the referee for Super Bowl LII before retiring. “That didn’t mean to allow teams to foul. It meant that the percentage of the plays when you officiate that have a level of judgment in there — holding, some PI — they have levels of when it becomes a foul or when it is technically a foul but we don’t feel it’s a big enough foul yet. So that was the messaging and it was always that.
“That’s the dance that you constantly have week to week and play to play. And what you hope happens is once you’ve reached that type of level of what we’re going to call, it’s to maintain that consistency throughout the game and hopefully throughout the weeks and the season to allow the teams to prepare to understand that if we go to this level, is this still legal? Players and coaches adjust to officiating as well so long as it remains consistent. And I think that’s the challenge constantly for officials as the third team on the field.”
The edict from the league to officials was clear this season: Call fewer penalties. It quickens the game and leads to more points. On average, teams were called for just 38 offensive penalties this year. That’s down from 49.5 from last season. And whaddyaknow? There were more points and touchdowns scored this year than in any other in NFL history.
Match that up with the general idea that officials throw fewer flags in the playoffs. From 2000-2019 there were 12.8 penalties per regular season game but 10.7 penalties per postseason game. Since 2000, only in 2008 and 2009 were there more penalties/postseason game than penalties/regular season game for that season.
Is that because the officials swallow their whistles in January? Or perhaps better teams just commit fewer penalties, and teams that made it to the postseason are usually better than the rest.
“No, I don’t think they (swallow their whistles),” Steratore said. “Two things happen. They really understand the magnitude of fouls. Usually that edict that I always passed to my crew resonates with them in the one-off games now where the message is (to) make the fouls big. I think the other thing that happens … the teams who have gotten to this point have probably played really well within the rules for the good portion of the season. So they may have a tendency to foul less as the playoffs move forward and their competition is equal. And they understand how punitive one penalty can be to the game, for their team. Some of that occurs.
“But within that, they also have to go all out at the same time because this is the championship. I think it’s a combination of both. But I would never say that officials are swallowing whistles or holding flags because they want to ‘let them play.’ That’s a bad phrase in officiating. ‘Let them play’ means somebody’s gaining an advantage.”
Through 12 games this postseason there have been just 98 penalties. That equals 8.17 penalties/postseason game, which since 2000 trails only 2011’s 8.09 penalties/postseason game as the lowest rate. The Chiefs have committed 10 penalties in two games while the Bucs have 12 penalties through three games.
The Chiefs were penalized heavily last postseason as well, racking up 17 flags in three games on their way to the Super Bowl title. In fact, Kansas City is the second-most penalized team since 2018, trailing only the Jaguars. The Buccaneers went from being the most penalized team in the 2019 season to the 20th in 2020 with Tom Brady at quarterback.
And what of the referee for this one? Carl Cheffers called two Chiefs games this year and zero Bucs games. This is his second Super Bowl, with his first coming in the Patriots‘ win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. That one was without officiating controversy and included his crew correctly officiating Julian Edelman‘s unreal catch.
According to Pro Football Reference, his crews called 12.4 penalties/game this season, giving an extra flag per game than the league average. Crews he has headed over the past 13 seasons have thrown more flags than the league average in all but four seasons.
Steratore says that with an all-new crew for the Super Bowl, those trends won’t matter whatsoever. Plus, those averages don’t have any bearing on the game itself, Steratore says, because all it takes is one or two sloppily-played games in a season to throw the average off.
“Carl’s a very well respected official and a good leader,” Steratore continued. “What you’re doing right now is you’re bringing this collective group together and you’re going to speak in that coach-to-team mentality where this is what we’re about to face and go through together. We feel we’re all trained identically by the collective group, but now we’re going to blend this in with my tempo or what I expect to be done in between downs. That’s when the flow of the game has the mark of a referee that has gone through the preparation with the crew in my opinion. Those are the things that you’ll see with really good crews.”
Part of that preparation for officials is studying the teams and understanding their tendencies. Steratore officiated numerous New England games for example, and he understands that if Brady hit a big gain from around midfield into the red zone, he would try to get to the next snap quickly so the defense couldn’t substitute and be caught off balance.
You don’t want to go too quickly and give a team an unfair advantage, nor too slowly and hurt them. Similarly, certain calls might be easier — for lack of a better term — for officials to make depending on the quarterback. Because of Brady’s style of play, if you see illegal contact down the field, your progression as an official would be to see if the quarterback is still in the pocket with the ball. And since it’s likely Brady remained in the pocket, that’s a flag.
For Mahomes, his ability to scramble can make that specific call tougher. So can Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy’s penchant for calling plays with unique formations.
“You don’t want to start thinking about that at 3:30 in the afternoon on Saturday,” Steratore says. “It’s the game of your life. It’s history. If you make a mistake next Sunday, with the stripes on, that costs someone the Super Bowl, your grandchildren will live with it. That’s a fact. It’s just the way this thing goes.
“You do understand the magnitude of it. And for that reason, you’re humbled by what’s about to take place and you better be ready.”