Handicappers looking to get an edge are often found digging around in areas that the casual fan doesn’t think about in the hopes of coming across some nugget of predictive value.
While there has been attention placed on baseball umpires, NBA officials and other sports arbiters for their possible effects on the outcome of a game, we haven’t come across much on NFL officials, even though their calls are more commonly found to be controversial.
Since the officiating crew tends to stay together throughout the season, we’ll identify the NFL flag-throwers by the referee who heads up the unit. There are some changes from season to season, but the inherent problem with NFL ref stats is the small sample of games. For now, we’ll stick with the theory that the ref is setting the "policies" for his unit.
In terms of attempting to find bias in how the crew calls a game, two things spring to mind:
The record of the home team may be indicative of a crew’s favoritism (or lack thereof ”” a crew might be overly generous to the away team in an attempt to prove they are impartial). And, the total scoring of both teams may suggest a crew’s officiating "style."
It would be tough to make any convincing case that the refs were biased one way or the other.
The top three "homers" in ’02 only show a 21-24 spread mark in the follow-up, while the three most "away favoring" 2002 crews were 24-20 for the home side in 2003! In other words, complete turnarounds.
This doesn’t preclude the possibility of a bias, but the reality is that it’s unlikely the NFL would not themselves notice any kind of slant by officials over a long period.
Perhaps, we thought, there might be a bias as well towards favorites/underdogs or even better, an officiating crew that likes to keep games "close" and would thus provide very favorable situations for a large underdog to over-achieve!
When we defined a "big favorite game" as one with a five plus point line, two of the names on our list of six most extreme reappear: the big dog covered 6 of 7 in Kukar games, and 5 of 6 in Blum games in 2002. A retest on 2003 shows that the big favorite covered in 3 of 4 for Kukar, and 4 of 6 for Blum!
Bettors should get limited mileage trying to follow ref’s trends on sides and there’s still hope that the officials may have a more pronounced and consistent effect on totals.
We know that NFL coaches do follow the officials for tendencies in terms of what type of penalties they call and advise their players accordingly (e.g. with crew X the defensive backs can be more physical with WR’s and not be likely to draw a flag).
It makes sense that a crew that calls a lot of offensive holding but fewer pass interference plays would knock the scoring down.
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