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13 Jan 2005

Introducing the NFL's Sternest Referee

By Michael David Smith

It's often said that the best referees are the ones you never notice, but that's not always true. In the case of Ed Hochuli, you notice him because he's not afraid to make the tough calls and enforce the rules as they're written.

Hochuli made what might have gone down as the most momentous call in recent NFL history Saturday when he flagged Eric Barton of the Jets for roughing the passer, negating what had appeared to be the decisive play in a hard-fought playoff game. The Chargers capitalized on the penalty to send the game into overtime, though the eventual Jets victory saved Barton and Hochuli from having their names splashed across the back pages all week.

Hochuli made the right call: Barton's hit was the dumbest play in recent memory committed by a football player not named Leon Lett. But most referees wouldn't have flagged him. When it comes to calling penalties in the playoffs, Hochuli is a stickler for the rules, while the rest of the NFL's referees take a "let 'em play" attitude.

The league admits that penalties decline in the playoffs but claims that's because good teams don't commit penalties and good teams make the playoffs. That's just not true. In reality, there's no statistical correlation between the number of a team's penalties and its winning percentage. Good teams are more aggressive, and aggressiveness leads to penalties. Winning teams also tend to be smarter about taking penalties at the right times; it's often advantageous to take a delay-of-game penalty rather than waste a timeout.

In truth, each year the NFL has 11 referees working 11 playoff games, and each year Hochuli gets more face time than any other ref. Maybe that's because he's the only one who doesn't back off from making the tough calls in the playoffs. Maybe he's too anxious to throw his flag. Or maybe he just wants a wide audience to see his bulging pecs. Whatever the reason, Hochuli and his crew consistently call more penalties than any other group of officials in the NFL at playoff time.

Consider some of the numbers. Saturday's Chargers-Jets game had 17 accepted penalties for 124 yards, all in regulation. This weekend's other three games all had fewer penalties for fewer yards, with an average of 12 for 84 yards.

Last season, the 12 playoff teams averaged 6.3 penalties for 51.6 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams averaged 4.6 penalties for 34.5 yards a game. That was a drop of 27% in terms of penalties per game and 33% in terms of yards per game. Then Ed Hochuli refereed the Super Bowl and promptly gave us a game in which the teams combined to accept 20 penalties for 133 yards.

The 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2002 averaged 6.4 penalties for 53 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams averaged 5.4 penalties for 53.3 yards a game. That slight increase in yards can be attributed to the Tennessee-Oakland penalty-fest, which saw a total of 21 penalties for 187 yards in just one game. Ed Hochuli was the ref for that game.

The 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2001 averaged 5.5 penalties for 45.8 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams averaged 4.1 penalties for 31.4 yards a game. That's a drop of 25% in terms of penalties per game and 31% in terms of yards per game. But in the game refereed by Ed Hochuli, the Steelers-Patriots AFC Championship, the two teams combined for 15 penalties and 112 yards. (That game earned Hochuli Peter King's Goat of the Week award.)

I don't want to belabor the point, but let's look at one more year. The 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2000 averaged 6.5 penalties for 54.8 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams averaged 5.8 penalties for 44.7 yards a game. That's a drop of 11% in terms of penalties per game and 18% in terms of yards per game. The game officiated by Ed Hochuli featured 10 accepted penalties for 68 yards.

This inconsistency is a problem the NFL needs to address. As I wrote before last year's Super Bowl, penalties go down dramatically in the playoffs. The league tries to claim that's because good teams don't commit penalties and good teams make the playoffs, but that's just not true.

Finally, Hochuli has refereed two Super Bowls. Those two Super Bowls had 20 and 16 accepted penalties, respectively, tied for first and tied for third most penalties in Super Bowl history.

Fans don't enjoy seeing the game stopped every few minutes because an official has thrown his yellow hankie on the field. But football has a thick rulebook, and it's there for a reason. When officials hesitate, players too often get away with penalties, especially holding infractions that are often hard to detect in the middle of a mass of 300-pound men. That Hochuli notices these penalties and enforces them doesn't endear him to the fans, but it does make him a good referee.

Despite Hochuli's history of making more calls in the playoffs than his fellow referees, none had been particularly memorable before Saturday's call against Barton. That's because the calls fans remember are the blown ones, and Hochuli calls the game correctly.

Hochuli, an attorney who's in his 15th year as an NFL official, calls more penalties than his fellow officials in the regular season, too. In every one of his regular-season games in 2004, Hochuli's crew stepped off at least 10 penalties, and they reached the 20-penalty mark twice.

For the season, Hochuli and his crew averaged 15 penalties for 119 yards a game. Hochuli even calls huge numbers of penalties during the preseason: During the Hall of Fame Game, Hochuli and his crew enforced 22 penalties for 189 yards. Football commentators attributed that to the players being rusty, but it would be more accurate to attribute it to Hochuli being in mid-season form. So it's not that Hochuli calls more penalties in the playoffs, it's that he calls the same number while the other officials back off in the postseason.

I don't like criticizing referees, who are easy targets for every fan disappointed with the way a game turned out. But the league owes it to its fans and its players to explain why one referee consistently calls more penalties than the others in the most important games.

Note: An edited version of this article appeared in Wednesday's New York Sun.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 13 Jan 2005

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