Refereeing Part 2: Calculating the Cost in the Steelers/Bengals Game


Frank Victores, USA Today Sports

My youngest son, whom I am currently visiting, read Tuesday’s article in which I focused on the refereeing of last Sunday’s game and came away disappointed. Of course, every parent is accustomed to their offspring feeling a lack in their parental units, but Edmund has reached and passed the age (approximately 25 for most children, I believe) in which his parents have stopped getting stupider and are on the upswing, so perhaps there’s more to it than that.

His disappointment was with my conclusion, or lack thereof, more precisely. He’s got a point. I’m always reluctant to express a really firm opinion about such things, from the fear I’m merely exposing my ignorance. This is despite the fact I spent some amount of time studying the rules for PI and leading with the crown of the helmet, and even watched Dean Blandino’s video on PI. It still wasn’t exactly clear in my mind. But given the results of last Sunday’s game, I’m not sure I’m the only one with this problem.

At any rate, here is my attempt to actually quantify how the refereeing might have affected the outcome of the game, using information gathered and analyzed by someone a lot smarter than I. I decided to use the Expected Points charts developed by Bryan Burke of Advanced Football Analytics. I’m not trying to beat a dead horse as to last week’s game, but try out something with information I’ve already gathered. If it turns out to be interesting I’ll make it a regular feature.

So let’s see if the game theoretically could have come out differently had the officiating been better. I will eliminate what seems to be marginal and just go with the actual called penalties which were questionable and the more egregious non-calls. I will also eliminate anything I included in the previous post which I decided was not a bad call or non-call on viewing the all-22, etc. Commentary in italics.

Q1, :17, 1st and 10 at PIT 20: uncalled crown of helmet penalty* against Bengals. This would have resulted in a first down and a 15-yard penalty from the end of the play.  This would increase the Steeler’s Expected Points from .4 to 1.4. In the event, the Steelers were forced to punt from the CIN 43. In fact, the additional 15 yards would have brought them into field goal range, giving a likely result of +3. But I’m going to stick with the increased “expected points,” (hereafter EP) and therefore we are, so far, at +1.0 (1.4 – .4)  for the Steelers. 

Q2, 15:00, 2nd and 5 at PIT 25: uncalled roughing the passer, or some other sort of personal foul against the Bengals. This would be an automatic first down and move the ball to the PIT 40. The actual result of the play was an incomplete pass, bringing up 3rd and 5. The scoring probability at this point on a third down has dropped precipitously, to essentially 0.  The EP for a first down at the PIT 40 is 1.4. The difference is +1.4.

Q2, 11:51, 3rd and 3 from CIN 43: uncalled helmet-to-helmet on Darrius Heyward-Bey. On further review it’s almost inconceivable they didn’t call that if they actually do care about eliminating head hits. The actual result of the play was an incomplete pass, forcing a punt. So we go from a punt to 1st and 10, an EP of 0 or less (if, say, the punt was blocked) to 1st and 10 on the CIN 28, an EP of 3.4. Difference—+3.4

Q2, 10:59, 2nd and 10 at CIN 10: uncalled late hit on Mike Mitchell. The announcers called it “questionable” and certainly there was no suggestion of a flag. It was almost immediately after the ball passed, but the ball wasn’t particularly close, either. So let’s go ahead and call it. This would be a 1st and 10 at the spot of the foul, so  it would take the ball to the CIN 45 or so. The play would go from an EP of around -.5 to 1.4 for a difference of +1.9 for the Bengals. 

Q2, 5:05, 1st and 10 from CIN 36: uncalled PI against CIN. DB Josh Shaw was running with his back to the ball and actually puts his hand on Eli Rogers’ facemask. The ball fell incomplete, behind Shaw, so perhaps this is why there was no PI call. Had they called it, the ball would have been spotted at the CIN 5. This would have changed the EP from 2.8 to 5.0. However, since I’m guessing they usually don’t call PI in such circumstances, I’m going to skip this one.

Q2, 1:30, 2nd and 2, PIT 16: much more egregious non-PI call. Sammie Coates and Dre Kirkpatrick were “tied up,” according to the announcers, but you couldn’t see the play. On the coaches’ film you could see that Kirkpatrick’s handiness, if you will, which began well after five yards out, slowed Coates down considerably. The ball was in front of Coates. It isn’t unreasonable to assume it was right where Coates would have been had he not been hampered. The spot of the foul would have been about the PIT 35 or so. If they had awarded the Steelers the ball where it fell incomplete, it would have been at about the CIN 40. The difference in EP from a 3rd and 2 at the 16 (around -.1) and a 1st and 10 at the PIT 35 (1.2) is about +1.3. The difference on a 1st and 10 at the CIN 40 (2.6) is +2.7. 

Q2,  1:24, 3rd and 2, PIT 16: Unflagged holding, Ramon Foster. The result of the play was a 4-yard completion to DWill and a 1st down. Instead it would have been 3rd and 12 at the PIT 6. The actual result (1st down at the PIT 20) is an EP of .4. The EP for a 3rd and 12 at the PIT 6 is close to -1.0, so we can put +1.4 in the Bengals column. As it happened, Ben threw a long pick on the next play and the Bengals got the ball at their own 32 yard line. They probably would have had better field position had the Steelers been forced to punt from deep in their own territory, but Jordan Berry was killing it, so it might not have been drastically different. And for that matter a different play-call might have resulted in a 1st down anyhow, or a pick only 20 yards from the end zone, or any number of other possibilities. So we’ll leave it at the Bengals picking up +1.4 EP.

Q3, 3:57, 1st and 10, PIT 34: PI called on Ross Cockrell. This was probably a reasonable call, according to the PI rules. The only issue is, the Steelers weren’t getting these calls. Had it been ruled an incomplete pass, the Bengals’ EP for a 2nd and 10 at the PIT 34 would have been 3.0. This call changed the EP to 4.1 for a 1st and 10 at the PIT 14. So this adds +1.1 to the Bengals’ EP, but for the purposes of the article it is removed, since it increased the likelihood of them scoring. As noted, I wouldn’t even look at it had the Steelers been receiving PI calls for the same sorts of situations…

Q3, 3:02, 3rd and 6 at PIT 10: PI called on Artie Burns. Again, the contention isn’t so much that the call was incorrect as that it was so similar to a non-called PI on the Bengals in the first half. In this case it changed the EP for the Bengals from about 3.5 (since it was 3rd and longish) to 5.6 (for a 1st and goal at the 1 yard line.) This added 2.1 to the Bengals’ EP, but is subtracted for my purposes. Mind you, it probably would have been a touchdown, and in the end they actually only got 3, but that isn’t the point…

Q3, 2:24, 2nd and 3, PIT 3: Pass to Uzomah ruled incomplete. There was no challenge of the incomplete ruling, although the broadcast team spent the next five minutes or so replaying it and declaring it should have been a touchdown. This meant about as much as did their declarations that there should have been PI calls for AB or a personal foul on Ben. But let’s calculate the damage. Again the EP was pretty close to 6 (EP doesn’t take extra point kicks into consideration.) Since the Bengals ended up kicking a field goal, you could correctly argue that the incorrect call (assuming it was such, since I note Dean Blandino didn’t publish an explanatory video, unlike he did for the Tyler Boyd fumble) cost the Bengals at least 3 points and possibly 4. I’ll give them +3.5, since PATs aren’t gimmes anymore.

Q3, 1:36, 2nd and 5, PIT 30: uncalled facemask on Domata Peko. The result of the play was a 4-yard run, leading to 3rd and 1 on the PIT 34. Had the penalty been called it would have been 1st and 10 on the PIT 49, leading to a change in EP from about .7 to 1.8. +1.1, Steelers.

Q3, 1:27, 3rd and 1, PIT 34: Offsides called on Bengals. It actually should have been a false start on Maurkice Pouncey, so instead of 1st and 10 at the PIT 39 (EP of .9 or so) it should have been a 3rd and 6 at the PIT 29 (EP of around .4). So this is a change of about .5.

Q3, 1:08, 2nd and 10, PIT 39: Dre Kirkpatrick tackled DWill after a 7-yard run, using his head. This was not flagged. It should have been a horse collar or a personal foul of some sort. So instead of a 3rd and 3 at the PIT 46 it should have been 1st and 10 at the CIN 39. This results in a change in EP from about 1.0 (the “about” part has to do with the rather inexact adjustments for 3rd down and the distance) to 2.7. In the event the Steelers had to punt after the following down. +1.7, Steelers.

Q4, 6:59, 2nd and 4, CIN 4: Non-PI call on Karlos Dansby. This one was bad. He actually shoved AB to the ground (Brown slipped going into the end zone, got up, and Dansby shoved him back down.) If this isn’t PI nothing is. The Steelers got a touchdown anyhow. However, we aren’t really looking at what happened but merely the changing EP. In this case it went from around 5.0 to probably 4.5 or so. +.5, Steelers

Q4, 6:48, 1st and 10, CIN 25: Stephon Tuitt probably should have been called for a late hit on the quarterback. Although he didn’t hit Dalton’s head, he hit him in the back hard enough to pop his helmet off. The actual result was a 2nd and 3 at the Cincy 32, an EP of about .9. It should have been 1st and 10 at the CIN 40, with an EP of 1.4. +.5, Bengals

Q4, 3:34, 2nd and 8, PIT 25: non-call of holding on whoever was mugging James Harrison. We’re all so used to Harrison being held we hardly notice. This, however, should have called back a touchdown, so that’s a pretty big change. It should have gone from 6 (again, not counting the PAT) to 2nd and 18 on the PIT 35, an EP of about 2. So that’s -4 for the Bengals.

Q4, 3:16, 3rd and 6, PIT 29: non PI call for AB. It’s amazing how much less likely a receiver is to catch a pass when he’s on his backside on the turf, thanks to the “perfect coverage.” This should have gotten a PI call at the PIT 39 or so, and a new set of downs. The Bengals were down to one time out. A new set of downs would have allowed the Steelers to at least run an additional 2 minutes off the play clock, even if they didn’t score, thus not giving the ball back until 1:16 with the Bengals only having one time out, or more like 1:50, but the Bengals would have no time outs. To calculate it in terms of EP, since the Steelers punted the EP was 0. The EP for a 1st and 10 at the PIT 39 is 1.4. +1.4, Steelers.

Q4, 2:00, 1st and 10, PIT 39: Ruling on the field of a fumble which the Steelers recovered. Although this was awfully controversial, the head of officiating explained why the call on the field, either way, would stand. More importantly, Homer J. explained in a comment to Tuesday’s post why it was called the way it was in the first place… It certainly did change the situation, but let’s see by how much. There are several ways it could have gone. Had it been ruled a catch, it would have been 2nd and 4 at the PIT 33, for an EP of about 2.8. Had it been ruled incomplete it would have been a 2nd and 10 at the PIT 39, for an EP of about 2.2. As it was, of course, it resulted in an EP of 0. Let’s give the more generous estimate, so +2.8, Bengals.

The envelope, please. I’m quite excited, as I haven’t been totaling it as I go along.

The final score, when modified by the EP as shown above, would have been 35.8 – 19.4, Steelers.

Even though this will probably irritate Edmund, I will point out that there are quite possibly some calls I missed, both ways. I gather Cincy fans are screaming about uncalled offensive holding for the Steelers. I suspect there were more offensive holds by the Bengals than I noticed. I eliminated any of the questionable activity out of bounds, as it was quite mild (not even any hair pulling or shoving into benches) and I agree that it should be ignored by the refs unless it is escalating.

Of course, some of the penalties in the second half (or non-penalties, as the case may be) were so close together they couldn’t have all been in effect. But rather than try to pick and choose, I just went with it.

*The rule on leading with the crown of the helmet says it has to be forcible, not incidental, contact. Boy, there is a lot of gray area there. That said, on the particular play described the first hit knocked Johnson sideways, the second one to the ground. The second may or may not have been with the crown of the helmet—the first definitely was.

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