Presenting Data – Referee Crew Calls in the NFL

One of the great things about computers is their ability to take tabular data and turn them into pictures that are easier to interpret. I’m always amazed when given the opportunity to show data as a picture, more people don’t jump at the chance.

For example, this piece on ESPN regarding the difference in officiating crews and their calls has some great data in it regarding how different officiating crews call games.

One thing I find a bit disconcerting is:

  1. One of the rows is missing data so that row looks ‘odd’ in the context of the story and makes it look like the writer missed a big thing … they didn’t (it’s since been fixed)
  2. This tabular format is just begging to be displayed as a picture.

Perhaps the issue here is that the author didn’t know how to best visualize the data to make his story, but I’m going to help him out.

If we start from the underlying premise that not all officiating crews call games in the same way, we want to see in what ways they differ.

The data below is a reproduction of the table from the article:

Triplette, Jeff 39 2 34 6 81
Anderson, Walt 12 2 39 10 63
Blakeman, Clete 13 2 41 7 63
Hussey, John 10 3 42 3 58
Cheffers, Cartlon 22 0 31 3 56
Corrente, Tony 14 1 31 8 54
Steratore, Gene 19 1 29 5 54
Torbert, Ronald 9 4 31 7 51
Allen, Brad 15 1 28 6 50
McAulay, Terry 10 4 23 12 49
Vinovich, Bill 8 7 29 5 49
Morelli, Peter 12 3 24 9 48
Boger, Jerome 11 3 27 6 47
Wrolstad, Craig 9 1 31 5 46
Hochuli, Ed 5 2 33 4 44
Coleman, Walt 9 2 25 4 40
Parry, John 7 5 20 6 38

The author points out:

Jeff Triplette’s crew has called a combined 81 such penalties — 18 more than the next-highest crew and more than twice the amount of two others

The author goes on to talk about his interview with Mike Pereira (who happens to be pimping promoting his new book).

While the table above is helpful it’s not an image that you can look at and ask, “Man, what the heck is going on?” There is a visceral aspect to it that says, something is wrong here … but I can’t really be sure about what it is.

Let’s sum up the defensive penalties (Defensive Offsides, Encroachment, and Neutral Zone Infractions) and see what the table looks like:

Triplette, Jeff 47 34 81
Anderson, Walt 24 39 63
Blakeman, Clete 22 41 63
Hussey, John 16 42 58
Cheffers, Cartlon 25 31 56
Corrente, Tony 23 31 54
Steratore, Gene 25 29 54
Torbert, Ronald 20 31 51
Allen, Brad 22 28 50
McAulay, Terry 26 23 49
Vinovich, Bill 20 29 49
Morelli, Peter 24 24 48
Boger, Jerome 20 27 47
Wrolstad, Craig 15 31 46
Hochuli, Ed 11 33 44
Coleman, Walt 15 25 40
Parry, John 18 20 38

Now we can see what might actually be going on, but it’s still a bit hard for those visual people. If we take this data and then generate a scatter plot we might have a picture to show us the issue. Something like this:

The horizontal dashed blue lines represent the average defensive calls per crew while the vertical dashed blue line represents the average offensive calls per crew. The gray box represents the area containing plus/minus 2 standard deviations from the mean for both offensive and defensive penalty calls.

Notice anything? Yeah, me too. Jeff Triplette’s crew is so far out of range for defensive penalties it’s like they’re watching a different game, or reading from a different play book.

What I’d really like to be able to do is this same analysis but on a game by game basis. I don’t think this would really change the way that Jeff Triplette and his crew call games, but it may point out some other inconsistencies that are worth exploring.

Code for this project can be found on my GitHub Repo