News & Analysis

What impact does an officiating crew have on fantasy prospects?

Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; NFL referee Gene Steratore during the Carolina Panthers game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Panthers 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football is a game partly of chance and partly of skill, much like poker. Even for the most knowledgeable players, our edge is still extremely small, and all we can do is try to excel at the few things we do have some control over. Mainly, we need to maximize every potential edge (no matter how small) and we must be more knowledgeable than our opponents.

For me, as a fantasy analyst and DFS addict, sometimes that means digging into some obscure data no one else is looking at to see if this is a potential edge we can exploit. In the case of today’s article, that means looking at NFL officiating data to see if it might have any impact on fantasy scoring.

A recent article offered an enlightening explanation for New England’s lack of penalties in recent years. It’s simple — they study the frequency at which certain referees call penalties and make adjustments accordingly. If this strategy might work for Bill Belichick, on his way to his eighth Super Bowl appearance within the Tom Brady-era, why couldn’t it work for us in DFS?

Referees explained

Before we dig into the data, I want to address one of the flaws in studying NFL officials. Basically, there are seven different officials on the field in any given game, and all with various and sometimes overlapping responsibilities. I’d suggest referring to the rule book here or this infographic here to get a better understanding of the different functions of each official: Referee, Umpire, Down Judge, Line Judge, Field Judge, Side Judge, and Back Judge.

For most of this article, we’re looking at each official individually (not by the officiating crew itself) and each position equally. Although that might not be the best methodology, it’s the only one possible by the data I have access to.

Methodology explained

In this article, I’m looking at all officiating games since the year 2000. Whether they were the referee or back judge made no difference. We’re looking only at officials to officiate in at least 50 games and with at least one of those games coming in the year 2017.

With 114 officials in my sample, I wanted to look first at an official’s average combined points per game in games officiated.

You’ll notice only 1.6 points per game separates the No. 30 official from the 80th, suggesting there isn’t a massive edge to be gained.

This information is also flawed to a degree. Perhaps by mere chance alone, some of these referees were officiating an abnormal number of games consisting of the league’s best or worst offenses. In the next chart we’re looking at the frequency of which an officiator’s games go over their Vegas over/under projection. This should help separate some of the noise generated by a mostly random schedule.

Here’s the chart:

I think this chart is a little more meaningful, but if looking for a DFS or betting edge, I’d rather combine the two to look for any sort of overlap. I did that here:

It's really curious to note that Patrick Turner ranked last on both charts, and Alex Kemp ranked top-five in both charts. Dale Shaw and Julian Mapp also ranked top-10 in both charts, while Laird Hayes ranked bottom-10 in both.

Perhaps the fact that only 37.1 percent of Turner’s games hit the over/under was just an outlier, or perhaps it had something to do with how he was calling games. This led me to another question, what could that impact be? Really, the only impact an official has on a game is penalties, but total penalties have a low correlation (+0.08) to points scored. Still, not all penalties should be treated equally, so I wanted to see which penalties most effected the scoring within a game.

Penalties

Although correlations overall were fairly low, defensive pass interference easily had the largest positive impact on total points scored in games (since 2000), followed by unnecessary roughness, and defensive holding penalties. On the opposite end of the spectrum, offensive holding, delay of game, and false start penalties had the largest negative correlation to points scored.

Again, the correlations were all fairly low overall, but defensive pass interference was most significant, so I wanted to dig deeper into that.

The 2016 and 2017 seasons garnered the most defensive pass interference penalties of any season since at least 2000. So, DPIs are being called more often now than possibly ever before, but what does that mean? Well, I detailed the 2017 receiving leaders in DPI penalties called here, while also discussing its effect on fantasy points. While DPIs result in better field position and better scoring opportunities (and higher scoring games), it’s not clear that heavily interfered-with receivers score more fantasy points. Intuitively, the reverse may even be true, as there are no points awarded for DPI yards and had a receiver not been interfered with they may have caught the pass and scored more fantasy points than their zero. They may, however, result in more fantasy points for quarterbacks and running backs, benefiting from the improved field position.

So, again, I was curious. Which officials called DPI penalties at the highest rates in the league? If Belichick thought this data was valuable, then I’d like to see it for myself.

Looking back at all officials to oversee at least 50 games 2000-2017 (postseason included) as either a Head Linesman, Field Judge, or Side Judge (the officials responsible for calling DPIs), with at least one of these games coming in 2017, here's who stood out in terms of DPI penalties called per game: (Note: These are total DPIs called per game officiated, not DPIs called by that specific official.)

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much overlap here with our previous two charts.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think this was a study that needed to be done, but not one that yielded the results we were hoping for. I wouldn’t spend much time at all worrying about which officials were officiating which games. Maybe, if in DFS and torn between a true coin-flip, I’d check to see which crews are officiating either game and refer back here. Lean toward quarterbacks and running backs in games where officials ranked highly in combined points per game and percentage of games to hit the Vegas over. Perhaps heavily interfered-with receivers will draw more targets in games with officials who frequently call DPIs, but I’m not even sure of that. Really, I think this is something we can safely ignore, and the outliers listed here are due more to randomness than anything else.

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