Happy Friday, friends. I’ve been in Las Vegas this week attending some mergers & acquisitions training, and it’s a new and interesting experience being here for business. None of my buddies are here, and I have to get up and work each day, so the Vegas stimuli are confusing to my mind and body.
The lights and the music and the tables are saying party, but when I get back to my room, all I have are draft audited financial statements to review. Next time I’m here, I’ll party it up; for this week, it’s business.
I got a question on Twitter a few days ago from reader Jessica Deva about the Patriots.
Paraphrasing, due to unlawyerly grammar in the IM she copied/pasted to me, her Patriots fan/attorney friend made the point that his Pats may have gotten some officiating help on Sunday, but that they’ve lost two other games on bad/missed calls this year, and that it all evens out. He specifically pointed to the Jets and Panthers games, and his whole point is that the Patriots got one back after having been hosed, and that they’re 1-2 in officiating-affected games.
Jessica ended with the following (quoted directly, due to better grammar):
I'm pretty sure the Pats have sacrificed small animals or goats or possibly children in a deal with the devil to enable all of these victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, but that's gonna be harder to prove.
Once I got the Mandalay Bay tech support weenies to make my internet work last night, I did some research. I thought about how to measure whether the judgment calls favored the Patriots this season, either in terms of frequency or (my objective judgment of) quality of the call.
The best approach that I could come up with was to go into Pro Football Reference, and make a list of all of the following penalties called this year, either for or against the Patriots:
- Defensive Pass Interference
- Offensive Pass Interference
- Unnecessary Roughness
- Roughing the Passer
Those are the calls that tend to be based on judgment, and tend to encompass big yardage, and represent high leverage in terms of the outcomes of games. Once I had my list, I went on the Game Rewind machine, and watched every one of the 29 plays that I had listed.
Here’s one assumption that I went into this exercise with: Tom Brady is one of these guys who is good at selling roughing the passer. It seems like he’s always getting that call, and the Patriots benefit from it disproportionally compared to other football teams.
The first thing that jumped out at me on PFR is that the Patriots shouldn’t be 10-3. According to PFR’s Expected Wins, the Pats should be 8-5. That seems to suggest that Jessica’s friend may be all wet, because the nebulous “luck” seems to have added two net wins to the Patriots’ record above their expected return, rather than one net win worse.
Now, help from the zebras isn’t the only element of football luck, but it is AN element, right? If we’re going to make the case that bad officiating has hurt New England more than helped them, you correspondingly have to make the case that all other luck factors have broken even more unevenly for the Patriots. I just don’t think that’s likely, off the top.
There’s also an element of Tom Brady’s personal greatness being enough to overcome an overall talent deficit at key times. The 2013 Patriots are actually pretty similar, profile-wise, to the 11-5 1986 Denver Broncos, who should have finished 9-7. Admittedly, some of the story isn’t luck.
I thought we’d walk through the 28 plays individually, to best answer Jessica’s question. The one obvious caveat is that I couldn’t include missed calls without seeing every play of every game, so the only one I included is the one that el solicitor mentioned.
Play 1 - Game 2 vs. Jets - 1st Quarter, 14:25 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Jets
The referees hit Antonio Cromartie here, and it was a questionable call. At best it was defensive holding, but to me, Cromartie and Kenbrel Thompkins just got tangled up at the top of the route, and the throw was nowhere near catchable. The Patriots went on to score a TD.
Play 2 - Game 2 vs. Jets - 1st Quarter, 8:10 remaining - Roughing the passer on Patriots
Chandler Jones got called for roughing Geno Smith as he threw deep and incomplete to Santonio Holmes. The call was ticky-tack, in my opinion, and could defensibly not have been called. Not the worst roughing call ever, but minor bad luck for the Pats. New York got a field goal out of the possession.
Play 3 - Game 3 vs. Bucs - 1st Quarter, 2:45 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Patriots
This was an obvious call on Kyle Arrington, as he basically tackled Mike Williams on a deep throw from Josh Freeman (Remember Freeman as a Buc?). The series ended with a Rian Lindell field goal.
Play 4 - Game 3 vs. Bucs - 2nd Quarter, 2:00 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Bucs
This was another obvious call, this time on Dashon Goldson, who had early contact on Aaron Dobson. The Patriots scored a TD a few plays later.
Play 5 - Game 4 vs. Falcons - 4th Quarter, 13:24 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Patriots
This was another obvious call, as Aqib Talib was all over Roddy White on a deep ball where he got beaten. The series resulted in a Matt Bryant field goal.
Play 6 - Game 4 vs. Falcons - 4th Quarter, 5:12 remaining - Offensive Pass Interference on Falcons
The zebras called Roddy White for a push-off against Talib, and it was in the same ticky-tack category to me as Play 2 was. By the letter of the rules, it’s OPI, but a couple dozen more egregious examples happen weekly without being called. The Falcons overcame the penalty, and ended up with a short field goal from Bryant.
Play 7 - Game 5 vs. Bengals - 4th Quarter, 0:30 remaining - Roughing The Passer on Bengals
This was the first game New England lost this year, 13-6, and they basically laid an egg on offense. With the game winding down, Brady was hit by Wallace Gilberry on 2nd-and-10 as he missed a short throw to Thompkins.
Brady did his lobbying act, and Gilberry was hit for a 15-yard penalty, which was a total gift for the Patriots. I wish I could show you video, because it was ridiculous. Tommy’s hurt little fee fees gave the Patriots a 1st-and-10 from the Bengals 17, and if I were a conspiracy theorist (I’m not), I would have been hollering about the officials trying to help the Pats win. On the next play, Brady threw a pick, which was emblematic of his bad day.
Play 8 - Game 6 vs. Saints - 2nd Quarter, 13:48 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Saints
On 3rd-and-2 from the Saints seven, Brady threw the ball to Dobson. The zebras called DPI on Keenan Lewis, despite the play being clearly more of a pushoff by Dobson than anything else. Rather than line up for a short field goal, the Patriots ended up getting a Stevan Ridley TD run a couple plays later. Remember, this was their first miracle comeback win of the season, where they eventually won 30-27. That four-point swing was meaningful, to say the least.
Play 9 - Game 6 vs. Saints - 3rd Quarter, 11:27 remaining - Offensive Pass Interference on Patriots
Dobson clearly pushed off on Corey White in catching a 30-yard pass downfield. This was a well-earned and obvious penalty on the Patriots.
Play 10 - Game 7 vs. Jets - Overtime, 7:17 remaining - Unnecessary Roughness on Patriots
This was the supposedly bad call that Jessica’s friend was whining about. Only thing is, it wasn’t a bad call, it was an application of a new rule, and a point of emphasis that the officials told every NFL team about in the offseason.
As a safety measure, the NFL prohibited a player from pushing his teammate through the line on field goals. This should have come as no surprise to New England or anybody else.
Guess what? There’s always going to be a first time a penalty is ever called, and the occurrence of such isn’t a sign of injustice.
As for the Jets doing the same thing, I looked, and it was nowhere near as clear-cut. Quinton Coples touched his teammate, while not particularly trying to block Stephen Gostkowski’s last-second field goal attempt, but didn’t materially push him.
Stop creating false equivalencies.
Play 11 - Game 8 vs. Dolphins - 2nd quarter, 6:09 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Dolphins
Jimmy Wilson got called for pass interference for hitting Rob Gronkowski on time. It was a bad call, and it gave the Patriots a key first down on 3rd-and-6. Wilson did exactly what you coach a safety to do – hit the guy after he touches the ball, and try to get him to drop it. The Pats got 21 yards, and instead of punting, kicked a field goal. They won the game by 10, ultimately.
Play 12 - Game 9 vs. Steelers - 2nd quarter, 10:35 remaining - Unnecessary Roughness on Steelers
This was the part of the season where the officials decided that Gronk was made of glass, and that nobody could hit him (Actually, maybe he is made of glass). Gronk caught a ball at the goal line, and Troy Polamalu hit him, like a safety often does. It was a touchdown anyway, but the Steelers had a nearly automatic touchback on the ensuing kickoff from the 50.
Play 13 - Game 9 vs. Steelers - 2nd quarter, 1:08 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Steelers
This was an obvious call on Polamalu, who was late helping on Dobson. The Patriots eventually scored a TD, which was a recurring event in a game they won 55-31.
Play 14 - Game 9 vs. Steelers - 2nd quarter, 0:24 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Steelers
Finally, somebody actually did earn a legit interference call against Mr. Double Digit IQ Gronkowski. This time it was rookie safety Shamarko Thomas. This got the Pats close, and they scored another TD.
Play 15 - Game 9 vs. Steelers - 4th quarter, 11:37 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Steelers
This one was borderline to me, because I thought William Gay was playing the ball more than the man. It was a defensible call, though.
Play 16 - Game 10 vs. Panthers - 1st quarter, 5:05 remaining - Unnecessary Roughness on Patriots
This was the result of Steve Smith and Talib getting tangled up, and then wanting to fight about it. Talib wouldn’t let go of Smith’s leg, and got called for the penalty, but I’m pretty sure that Smith instigated it. In any case, the Panthers benefited, and eventually scored a TD on the drive. After the game, Smith famously told Talib to “ice up, son.”
Play 17 - Game 10 vs. Panthers - 2nd quarter, 2:25 remaining - Unnecessary Roughness on Patriots
Logan Mankins got called for an obvious post-play roughness penalty. The Panthers ended up with a field goal on the possession.
Play 18 - Game 10 vs. Panthers - 4th quarter, 0:17 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Panthers
Melvin White was too early on a short pass to Dobson, and this ended up being a 10-yard penalty for the Patriots on 3rd-and-10 from the Carolina 46. It was the correct call.
Play 19 - Game 10 vs. Panthers - 4th quarter, 0:03 remaning - No call – DPI on Panthers
This was the (in)famous play where Luke Kuechly basically tackled Tweedle-Dumb Gronkowski while the ball was on the way. I tend to come down on the side of Jessica’s friend that the Patriots got screwed here, but the NFL was adamant that they got it right, because the ball was way underthrown.
Play 20 - Game 11 vs. Broncos - 2nd quarter, 5:35 remaining - Roughing The Passer on Broncos
This was another Brady lobbying job. Sylvester Williams got called for roughing Tommy’s little fee fees, after barely even touching the dude. He’s an undeniably great QB, but I’ll always remember him as being kind of a crybaby little bitch. The Patriots ended up punting anyway.
Play 21 - Game 11 vs. Broncos - 2nd quarter, 0:36 remaining - Offensive Pass Interference on Patriots
This was an obvious call on Danny Amendola. Do you want to know what gets this called, and what goes free? If you square up, as a receiver, and act like you mean to hit a defender, you’re running a big risk of getting called.
That’s what Amendola did on some crossing action. If you just incidentally contact a guy in a high traffic situation, and not square up, you’ll probably get away with it. (Yes, the Broncos receivers tend to be skilled at that.) Again, the Pats punted.
Play 22 - Game 11 vs. Broncos - 4th quarter, 3:35 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Patriots
For the first time in seven games, the Patriots got called for DPI. And do you know what? It was an obvious call. Rob Ninkovich was beaten badly by Jacob Tamme, and he tackled him to prevent a big gain. The Broncos ended up scoring the tying TD.
Play 23 - Game 11 vs. Broncos - Overtime, 13:04 remaining - Offensive Pass Interference on Broncos
In live action, I thought the Broncos got hosed on this one, but when I watched the All-22, it became clear that Eric Decker was trying to impede two different defenders on some crossing action, and he was a little too obvious about it. It was a good call that went the Patriots’ way.
Play 24 - Game 12 vs. Texans - 1st quarter, 5:42 remaining - Offensive Pass Interference on Texans
This was a questionable call; an offensive player ran into a defensive player, but it was away from where the catch was made, and it had no effect on the catch being made. Houston overcame it, and ended up kicking a field goal.
Play 25 - Game 12 vs. Texans - 2nd quarter, 6:56 remaining - Roughing The Passer on Texans
Brady threw incomplete for Gronk on 3rd-and-8, but his lobbying skills paid off again. Brooks Reed of the Texans hit him reasonably, and on time, and somehow it was called roughing. Of course it was. The Patriots ended up missing a field goal.
Play 26 - Game 13 vs. Browns - 3rd quarter, 8:40 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Browns
This was an obvious call, as Browns safety T.J. Ward hit Josh Boyce early on a pass over the middle. It was a matter of bad timing, and the Patriots got 10 yards on a series where they eventually lost a fumble.
Play 27 - Game 13 vs. Browns - 4th quarter, 1:04 remaining - Unnecessary Roughness on Browns
This was a really tough and meaningful call on the Browns. I think it was borderline whether Julian Edelman was defenseless as he caught the touchdown pass from Brady, and the hit from Jordan Poyer wasn’t that noteworthy.
To me, it felt like the kind of call an official makes when he feels “momentum” for a team, when the borderline calls start going the way of the team having success at the moment. The effect was that the Patriots got to kick onside from the 50, rather than their own 35. When they recovered, it gave them excellent field position.
Play 28 - Game 13 vs. Browns - 4th quarter, 0:40 remaining - Defensive Pass Interference on Browns
Now we get to the latest outrageous call that people are buzzing about. This was another momentum call, where the unfolding narrative drove the outcome. The Patriots are making a comeback for the ages! Therefore, of course the receiver got interfered with!
In reality, Leon McFadden had good coverage on Josh Boyce, and there clearly was no interference. The Patriots covered the bulk of the distance they needed to score on one call, and ended up scoring the winning touchdown shortly thereafter.
As for conclusions to this exercise, I think the Patriots have been a lot more lucky with favorable officiating this season than unlucky. When they got screwed against the Panthers, it was shocking, because that NEVER happens to the Patriots. They get the calls because they have the stature. Brady’s incredulous (and R-rated) reaction showed the sense of entitlement that goes with that.
I think that sense of entitlement makes its way to the fan base too; Jessica’s friend can’t seem to reconcile the fact that the Patriots (THE PATRIOTS, FOR GOD’S SAKE) could possibly be the first team to be called for violating a new rule. The fact that it had never been called before must invalidate the call, in the mind of the Patriots fan.
As for Jessica’s theory about sacrificing animals, I didn’t figure out a good approach to proving that. Anybody got any good ideas for that one?
I think that the Patriots are just kind of lucky and entitled, and there’s an element of their historical excellence getting them the benefit of the doubt from the officials. Also, Brady is good at crying for the roughing flag, even if it didn’t happen as often as I thought it would. The Patriots and their fans should be happy to be sitting two wins better in the standings than their fundamental indicators say they should have.
In the playoffs, eventually, the bill is going to come due, and they’ll be exposed.