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Does Clete Blakeman’s assignment as NFC Championship Game referee matter?

The first Bucs-Packers game of the year was called by Jerome Boger. This time they get Clete Blakeman. Thank goodness.

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Back in week six, the Green Bay Packers-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game in Tampa was officiated by Jerome Boger who is, to put it kindly, not great. Boger had three Bucs games in the 2020 season and all were extremely weird, as Boger games tend to be. The first, in week one, was a flag-filled garbage-fest in New Orleans where each team suffered over 100 yards in penalties. While the Bucs were penalized more often, with nine total, the Saints took it on the chin as all 6 penalties called against them were huge, including five separate pass interference penalties plus an unnecessary roughness call.

There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to Boger’s games. He came out of the gate calling a ridiculously high number of penalties (15 per game on average over the first quarter of the season) for a ton of yards. In the first four games he officiated, six of the eight teams were penalized for 75 yards or more, with three of those totals exceeding 100. Over the last three quarters of the season, only two teams would incur Boger’s wrath to such an extent: The Rams, who were penalized six times for 75 yards against Arizona in week 13, and Jacksonville, who suffered 10 penalties and 115 yards in week 16 against Chicago. It looks to me like someone in the league office had a talk with Boger after week 4 and he toned it down quite a bit before suffering a relapse later in the season.

The “toning it down” period included the Packers-Bucs game, in which Tampa was called for no penalties while the Packers were hit with six. I have rewatched this game more than I care to admit, and I don’t have a huge problem with most of the calls on Green Bay. Rashan Gary did facemask the ever loving crap out of Tom Brady, and Josh Jackson did interfere with Scotty Miller running deep. But I do have a problem with Tampa never getting called for anything. Tampa averaged 5 penalties against them per game on the season and only committed fewer than three penalties on three occasions. The first was against the Packers in week six, and the second was against Atlanta in an extremely clean game officiated by Brad Rogers where Atlanta was only flagged three times.

The final game was against the Rams in week 11, wherein Los Angeles was flagged six times for 65 yards while Tampa was flagged just twice for seven. It was also officiated by Jerome Boger. The Rams dominated this game and the three pass interference penalties called against Los Angeles were the primary reason Tampa was able to keep the game close. Jerome Boger is involved in far too many outliers, and in the two games he officiated in Raymond James stadium in 2020, Tampa was flagged twice for seven total yards.

Fortunately we don’t have to deal with Jerome Boger in the NFC championship game, as the game will be officiated by former Nebraska backup quarterback and personal injury attorney Clete Blakeman. (Meanwhile, the AFC title game gets Bill Vinovich.) Both are fine officials, though I do prefer Vinovich slightly as no official stays out of the way more than he does. Vinovich tends to call fewer penalties than Blakeman and he has a narrower split in terms of providing an advantage to one team over another. Over the course of the season, Vinovich never once gave one team more than a four-penalty advantage over another.

Blakeman can occasionally get penalty-happy, and called a fairly penalty-happy game in Green Bay’s week two victory over Detroit in which the Packers were flagged eight times for 60 yards, while Detroit was hit seven times for 70 yards. Blakeman also had the much cleaner Bears-Packers matchup in week 12 where his crew called only eight total penalties for just 62 yards.

But while Blakeman does insert himself into games more than I would like, he generally doesn’t call huge penalties on either side. Even though Blakeman calls more penalties than Vinovich, they tend to have about the same impact in the aggregate (at least, in terms of yardage) as Vinovich’s calls. Blakeman and Vinovich almost always keep the yardage differential between the two teams to 50 yards or under.

While we tend to see the high-profile mistakes, most of the NFL’s officials are actually quite good, and given the mess the league has made of the rules, that is no small feat. Boger had a huge impact on the first game, but it’s unlikely that we have a repeat with Blakeman, who has risen quickly up the ranks since joining the officiating pool as a field judge in 2008. He was promoted to referee in 2010 and has been tapped for playoff duty on numerous occasions, including the Green Bay-Seattle playoff game last season. There are officials that routinely have a material impact on the game. Blakeman generally isn’t one of them, and we can be pretty confident that regardless of the outcome on Sunday, the teams, and not the officials, will be the deciding factor.