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Referee Activity and the New Rules: Small Increases in Flags, Extra-Man Scenarios, and Penalty Minutes

Just how often are referees throwing flags in 2013 compared to 2012?

Tom Szczerbowski

It's only February, and because of that, drawing broad conclusions about anything is probably an idea worse than wearing underpants made of meat while going bear wrestling. The regular season is only about 10 percent complete and 11 teams still haven't even run on to the field to try and decapitate an opponent in a game that counts. There's still a long way to go in 2013, and while things that have happened over the last few weeks may be indicative of what is to come, the full picture of this year's iteration of college lacrosse is far from complete.

That aside, one of the biggest points for discussion early this season has been the role officials have played early in the year, potentially throwing flags at a higher rate than they have in the past due to their mandates under the new rules and points of emphasis that apply for the 2013 season. I usually ignore this kind of chatter because it is often based in whining and complaining, and those two things are oftentimes detached from reality in such a way that wearing underpants while going bear wrestling sounds like a decent idea. Rather than dismiss this with a hand wave and an eye roll, I actually did some digging and pulled together some research. As it turns out, referees are chucking fabric into the air a bit more this season than compared to last year, and I'm not totally convinced that at the end of May we'll be staring at a situation where 2013's games are played with notably more extra-man opportunities than 2012 showed the world.

To the table with details and numbers!

2012 2013 INCREASE
Unadjusted Total Penalties per Game 7.34 8.84 +1.50
Adjusted Total Penalties per Game 7.36 8.85 +1.49
Extra-Man Postures per 100 Offensive Possessions 10.49 12.24 +1.75
Extra-Man Postures per 100 Defensive Possessions 10.46 12.26 +1.80
Unadjusted Penalty Minutes per Game 3:03 3:36 +0:32
Adjusted Penalty Minutes per Game 3:04 3:36 +0:32

Some brief thoughts:

  • Are we really freaking out about how the officials are calling these games compared to last season? We're talking about a situation where referees have called only about one-and-a-half more penalties per 60 minutes of play than a year ago. And, honestly, those officials probably should have been throwing those flags in 2012 if the letter of the law had been followed as prescribed in the rulebook in effect at that time. This is a relatively small increase in the overall; it's not necessarily disjointing the game -- in totem across the country -- as the chatter has indicated over the last few weeks. Are there more flags? Yes. Are there significantly more flags? It depends on whether you think two more flags in 60 minutes of play is significant (ignoring the theoretical definition of "significant" in the world of statistics). We need to be better about not taking isolated incidents -- like the Siena-Hobart or Providence-Wager games where 16 penalties were called in each -- and say that penalties are up all across the country. Those isolated incidents, though, are indicia of possibly some unevenness in how certain teams of officials are calling games compared to other teams. Let's make sure we keep things focused here without painting in especially broad strokes, comparing prior year activity to current year activity. (Instead, compare unique activity in one season to the regime of that season.)
  • With the points of emphasis this season, I really thought we'd see greater penalty time served in 2013 based on referees identifying dangerous situations and punishing infracting players with longer trips to the box. It hasn't quite played out that way so far this season. In congruence with the increase in penalties, there's only been about a 30-second increase in penalty minutes served per game, consistent with not imposing a rash of personal fouls carrying one-, two-, or three-minute sin-bin trips. Maybe players have already adjusted to the new rules and points of emphasis, alterin their play to avoid these penalties? Maybe the officials just haven't walked down that path yet (or have had to walk down that path)? That's the biggest news to me, I guess.
  • It's still early in the year, the time when sloppiness tends to be a major factor in how games are played, including the rate at which penalties are committed. We'll see where these values go in a few weeks.
  • Extra-man scenarios are up about two opportunities per 100 possessions. That makes sense given the other values in the above-table. Here's a fun fact, though: Offensive extra-man conversion rates are down about 2.3 percent from the national average in 2012. This doesn't substantially change the overall goal scoring that would have occurred across the nation if teams had been a little better with the extra attacker, but it does raise this point: You may see teams rely a little more on extra-man scenarios to make the scoreboard blink in 2013, simply because there may be more opportunities to do so and there isn't a strong drop off in conversation rates in those postures. It's not a huge change that impacts the totality of play, but it could give a team around a goal more per game if the trend continues.