Written by Kristen Mori
January 19th, 2002. The New England Patriots are down three, but driving, when Oakland Raiders’ DB Charles Woodson comes up from the secondary to knock the ball out of second-year QB Tom Brady’s hands, silencing the crowd at Foxboro Stadium. The referees begin to review the fumble, and if it stands, it surely puts an abrupt end to their cinderella story season. By some miracle — or rather, some little-known clause hidden away in the expansive NFL rule book — New England maintains possession, ties the game, wins in overtime, and advances to the AFC Championship game. New England fans rejoice, push the stressful game from their minds and turn their focus onto the Pittsburgh Steelers, and hopefully, a franchise-first Super Bowl championship.
Oakland fans did not forget. The rest of the league did not forget. How could they, when even 16 years later, every ball seems to bounce New England’s way, and every call seems to do them a favor? It was truly in that moment — that moment Walt Coleman announced that the ruling on the field had been reversed — that the Patriots’ dynasty had been born. From then on, many teams’ championship dreams would be crushed at the hands of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who continued writing their names in the NFL history books long after bringing New England its first Lombardi.
Along with their championships, this coach-QB pair has been in the press for a number of other reasons throughout the years; specifically Spygate and Deflategate. Were these two scandals harmless misunderstandings of the rules, or were they devious attempts to get the upper hand by two guys who will stop at nothing to win? These controversies seem to factor in to the reasoning behind the most recent theory: although Brady and Belichick are good, their success is helped along by the league officials. I’m going to look at the numbers to see just how valid these claims really are.
Firstly, I want to get a few disclaimers out of the way. I am a Patriots fan. I am also a statistician, and a firm believer in “numbers never lie.” Numbers don’t lie, but they can easily be misinterpreted. I am going into this study as unbiased as I can be. As I type this, I do not know any more than you do what I am about to uncover, but I will certainly not hide anything that can be considered incriminating. Secondly, the data comes from nflpenalties.com — a very accurate dataset regarding penalties, but one that leaves out some other important calls made by referees. It doesn’t make note of overturned catches, fumbles, or scores. It is an unfortunate hole in the data, but there is nothing we can do about it. The data consists of regular and post-season penalties from 2009–2017.
Let’s get going then. First, we are going to look at the category of “Beneficiary Yards”, which is the number of yards that went in New England’s favor each year. We don’t want to look at “Calls Against” or “Yards Against” because that can easily be attributed to a well-coached, well-disciplined team — which New England is. An excerpt of the data is shown below for the 2017 regular and post-season (excluding, obviously, the Super Bowl).
Immediately, it’s not looking good for the Patriots. They ranked first in the league in 2017 for number of penalty yards that benefited them. However, they also had more games than most, having made it to the Super Bowl, so we will divide this total by the number of games, and then rank them. Let’s look at how they ranked in all the years since 2009. Let the number one ranking indicate that they received the most beneficiary yards.
Okay, so over the last 9 years, New England is just around the middle of the league in terms of penalty yards that benefit them. During this time frame, on average, a team receives 55.67929 penalty yards per game in their favor; the Patriots actually receive 1.139409 fewer yards than average. We see that in 2017 their ranking is rather high, so perhaps it is recency bias that is causing this belief that they are somehow favored.
Let’s do some more digging. This time, I did actually look at how many penalties went against each team. However, instead of looking at the raw count of penalties, I looked at how many of them came at home vs. away. For each of the seasons, I ranked teams based on their percentage of penalties that came at home. A number one ranking means the team had the lowest percentage of their penalties come at home — in other words, the largest “home field advantage”
In the last 9 years, cumulatively, just over 51% of New England’s penalties came at home. Over half of the flags thrown against them were thrown at Gillette Stadium. The only teams whose percentages were higher were Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Miami. There does not appear to be any sort of home field advantage in Foxborough, Massachusetts; in fact, they are one of the few teams for whom the majority of penalties occurred on
their home turf.
Still not convinced? Let’s keep digging. www.nflpenalties.com also has a penalty log for every game (again, dating back to 2009). I took every game for every other team, and I checked their average number of penalties per game against the Patriots and their average number of penalties per game against the rest of the league.
Penalty YPG vs. New England — 49.10429
Penalty YPG vs. Everyone Else — 54.20478
There you have it. Teams actually average fewer penalty yards against New England than they do against other teams.
As we know, the NFL has its fair share of blowout games, where the refs’ decisions probably don’t factor in as much to the result. Let’s filter out those games and only look at games that were, say, within two scores (16 points) of each other.
Penalty YPG vs. New England — 51.78641
Penalty YPG vs. Everyone Else — 54.81795
Both of these penalty yards go up; the penalty yards per game against New England goes up slightly more than those against the rest of the league. In other words, the average number of penalty yards committed by New England’s opponent increases for closer games. Is this meaningful? Probably not, considering it’s still less than the league average for penalty yards per game.
To conclude: there does not appear to be any Patriot-bias demonstrated by referees in the last nine seasons, according to the flags that they throw. As mentioned, however, I did not include in this analysis other important decisions made by officials, such as whether or not something was a catch, whether or not something was a fumble, whether or not a player stepped out of bounds, etc. However, based solely on this analysis, it looks like the recent story of “The league officials help the Patriots win” is, in fact, a non-story.