Everyone knew a Hail Mary was coming. The Green Bay Packers’ only hope to avoid the end of their season was to heave a desperation pass into the end zone.
Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell put his pass-rushing hat on. He lined up wide of Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, jumped the snap and immediately achieved leverage underneath Bakhtiari’s left shoulder. As Campbell headed for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Bakhtiari put his left hand on Campbell’s right shoulder and subtly pulled him to the ground.
Rodgers spun away, giving receiver Jeff Janis enough time to get to the end zone and catch a game-tying touchdown. Campbell looked around for a flag to confirm holding on Bakhtiari. Was referee Clete Blakeman going to overturn an instantly iconic play because of holding 40 yards away? No. The game went to overtime.
That sequence, in the NFL’s divisional playoffs earlier this month, seems relevant as Super Bowl 50 approaches because it helped fuel a long-held assumption. Namely, that officials swallow their whistles and “let them play” in the postseason.
“It happens,” said Campbell, an eight-year veteran, after the Cardinals’ 26-20 victory in overtime. “I understand in the playoffs you don’t want to call a lot of penalties. That’s the way it goes. I like when they let us play. But there were some that I thought could have been [called in that game]. But I respect the referees. They do a good job.”
Is that assumption true? Do penalty numbers really decrease in the playoffs? The answer is yes, in some categories more than others and in numbers that vary from season to season. But in total, the penalty stats tell a clear story.
The chart below, researched by Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information, reveals a 15-season trend. Over that period, penalty calls — including those that were declined or offset — have dropped 18.4 percent in the first three rounds of the playoffs and 9.8 percent in the Super Bowl compared to regular-season averages.
Penalties Per Game, 2001-15
REG SEASON TOTAL PLAYOFFS PRE-SB SUPER BOWL
Overall 14.86 12.24 12.13 13.43
Def. pass interference 0.88 0.79 0.81 0.57
Offensive holding 2.8 1.87 1.74 3.21
Behavior* 1.52 1.36 1.33 1.71
* Personal fouls, unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct and roughing the passer
Includes accepted, declined and offsetting penalties
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
Former NFL official and supervisor Jim Daopoulos, for one, openly acknowledged his playoff mindset: “Let them play football.”
Daopoulos, who officiated Super Bowl XXXIII and is now an ESPN analyst, added: “Just like the players and coaches, you’re on the biggest stage you’ve ever been on. It’s a time that requires more concentration than you’ve ever had before because of the implications. By the time you get to the Super Bowl, you go in with the mindset that you want to make sure it’s a foul.
“You want to make the big calls and not ‘Mickey Mouse’ these guys. Let them play football.”
For further inspection, we pulled out three of the most frequent and damaging judgment calls an official can make: defensive pass interference (DPI), offensive holding and what I call “behavior penalties.” (A combination of personal fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer.) The average DPI penalty this season cost teams 15.3 yards; holding causes at least a 10-yard loss and the rest are 15-yard penalties.
The most notable revelation was a 33 percent drop in the kind of holding penalties Bakhtiari avoided against Campbell, a trend that has been even more pronounced in this season’s playoffs. (The holding average rose in Super Bowls because three games in that span produced at least five holding calls. The other 11 games averaged slightly less than the regular-season average at 2.4 per game.)
There are at least a couple of caveats to consider here. First, there have been seasons when many of the least-penalized teams in the NFL advanced to the playoffs. In 2015, for example, five playoff teams committed among the six fewest penalties in the NFL this season, and nine of the 12 playoff entrants finished in the top half of the league. It stands to reason that teams that commit fewer penalties in the regular season are more likely to participate in low-penalty playoff games.
Second, there is no way to assess the officials’ relaxation of judgment without knowing how much more aggressively players are performing in anticipation of it. That seems especially true in cases of possible pass interference, be it Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel’s grab of Janis a few plays before the Hail Mary or the Denver Broncos’ hands-on defense of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in a game-deciding incompletion in the AFC Championship Game last week.
But suffice it to say, as we prepare for Super Bowl 50, linemen on both sides of the ball should consider themselves forewarned.
Overall, the 2015 regular season was the NFL’s most flag heavy year since 2005, when officials called 17.2 penalties per game. (They called 16.37 this season.) That jump was powered in part by an average of 3.41 offensive holding calls per game, also the league’s highest since 2005.
In the 10 playoff games to this point, however, holding has plummeted by 67.8 percent to 1.1 per game. Blakeman’s crew called only one in the Packers-Cardinals game, and that was on a punt. Based on the variation in holding calls for past Super Bowls, it seems reasonable to assume that Blakeman’s crew will follow the same pattern in Super Bowl 50.
“It’s such a subjective call,” Daopoulos said. “When I was a supervisor, I always told the umpires who made a lot of those calls for playoff games, ‘Make sure it’s big. Work with them. Coach them up if you have to, if that will avoid them making mistakes.’ You use your common sense there.”
This acknowledgement, combined with the numbers, raises a fair philosophical question: Should the NFL’s championship be determined by the exact same parameters as its regular-season games? Or are we all good with intensifying the focus on players, minimizing the officials and penalizing only the most egregious of mistakes?
From my vantage point, the adjustment is welcomed and fair as long as the teams are aware of it. If they’ve been tracking the numbers — and they most certainly have — it should come as no surprise.