The Super Bowl was a clear indication that the NFL was not happy with the downturn in penalties this season.
There was an obvious mandate from the league office to its officiating department, either spoken or unspoken, that there needs to be a cutback in penalty flags in 2020. There was and it was dramatic.
There were 3,414 penalties assessed league-wide in 2019, just 85 off the record set in 2015. But in 2020 there were 584 fewer penalties assessed than in 2019. It was the fewest penalties in the NFL since 2008. There were an average of 13.4 penalties per game for 114.5 yards in 2019. The penalties dropped to 11.2 per game for 97.4 yards in 2020. The total penalty yardage assessed league-wide during the 2020 was the fewest since 2009.
The edict was clear – let the players decide the outcome of games, not the officials.
And that mandate held through this post-season. Through the first 12 games in the conference rounds, there were an average of only 8.1 penalties per game for 68.9 yards. Not a single team was penalized 10 times in those 12 games nor was a team assessed 100 yards in penalties.
From September through January, NFL defenses were allowed to play a more physical brand of football. Then came the Super Bowl…
The NFL picks its playoff officiating crews based on merit. The highest-graded officials at each particular position – whether it’s back judge, field judge or referee – are rewarded with playoff games. And the cream of the crop, the best of the best, get that plum Super Bowl assignment.
Which brings us to Carl Cheffers, whom the NFL deemed as its best referee this season with this Super Bowl assignment. The referee sets the tone for his crew. The Cheffers crew finished second in the NFL in penalties this season with 200, just two off the lead (Alex Kemp). His crew called an average of 12.5 penalties per game this season for 103.5 yards.
Five times the Cheffers crew slapped a team with 10-plus penalties in a game this season. He saw the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs twice this season and flagged them with 10 penalties both times. The third time Cheffers saw the Chiefs – in the Super Bowl, on the game’s largest, brightest stage – produced another double-digit penalty game. In fact, Kansas City was hit with its season high in both penalties (11) and yards (120) in that 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Chiefs have a reputation of being grabby in the secondary. But through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Kansas City (and everyone else, for that matter) was allowed to get away with the ticky-tak penalties at all levels. The focus remained on the players, not the officials. They let them play. Until the Super Bowl flag-fest.
Tampa Bay was the better team. Offensively, defensively, special teams – the Bucs were the better prepared and better coached club in the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers deserved to win. But those eight first-half penalties for 95 yards against the Chiefs alone stripped all the drama from the game.
The Bucs were a different team from the one the Chiefs defeated, 27-24, in Tampa in November. But this was the same Carl Cheffers the Chiefs had seen all season.
If the best referee in the NFL is also the guy whose crew throws the most flags, look for the flags to come out of pockets again in 2021