Drew Brees

49ers vs. Saints: scouting zebras

When people attempt to break down NFL playoff matchups, almost every potential variable gets scanned and scrutinized. Then the game starts and the officials make one or more crazy judgment calls or outright mistakes and game gets turned upside-down.

The NFL is incredibly lucky that the Broncos prevailed in overtime against the Steelers on Sunday. Not because Tim Tebow is a TV superstar in a world full of mere stars, but because if the Steelers drove and kicked a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation the story would’ve been about the backwards lateral by Ben Roethlisberger (which should’ve been a fumble recovered by the Broncos) that was called an incomplete pass.

That wasn’t reviewable either, because one of the officials blew the play dead.

The officials have a huge effect on important games more often than anyone wants to admit, but in a world where NFL injury reports are pored over like classified Iranian intelligence by the CIA, almost zero attention is paid to the officiating crews named to each game.

Flag frequency

I don’t know enough about specific referees and how many mistakes they make (the NFL won’t even let us see every player on the field at once on television, so you know they’d never let the public know which officials are the most incompetent), but we do know which head referees call the most penalties.

We also know who the head ref will be for Saturday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers: John Parry (pictured).

Parry is pretty much a middle-of-the-road ref, although trends toward the flag-happy side of things — slightly. Out of the guys who’ve worked 11 or more games, he ranks 5th out of 17 head refs in terms of penalty yards per game (112.3) and he’s tied for 6th in flags thrown per game (15).

Sometimes officials can’t control how many penalties they have to call, especially if the Raiders are playing. However, some officials are apt to make certain “judgment calls” more often than others. False start, delay of game, those are cut and dry. But Parry’s 4th in holding calls (53), 1st in personal foul yardage (124) and tied for 3rd when it comes to throwing a flag for roughing the passer (9 times).

P.I. or not P.I., that is the question

However, with the 49ers’ secondary gearing up to face the league’s most prolific passer, the true worry is whether or not they’re going to get penalized for pass interference whenever a Saints receiver doesn’t catch a long pass from Drew Brees.

Here we have some good news: Parry isn’t Terry McAulay, who in 15 games announced 28 P.I. flags for 417 yards over the P.A. system (unfortunately I couldn’t tell how many were offensive or defensive). Parry’s sixth in P.I. calls per game, calling that foul 16 times for 263 yards.

Overall, Parry’s assignment to this game is probably a good thing for the 49ers. It doesn’t seem like he or his crews are particularly obsessed on one type of penalty, and to be honest I’ve never even heard of the guy.

The old cliche is how the best officials are the ones you don’t notice, and besides Ed Hochuli (who’s famous for his love in prior years of putting on a gun show, even during the coldest games) the most famous NFL ref is Mike Carey. Carey’s good at explaining penalties (especially compared to the marble-mouthed Jeff Triplette, who provides oodles of unintentional comedy in every game he does with his ultra-long, rambling explanations), but Carey’s also one of the flaggiest head refs in the game (2nd in the league behind Jerome Boger with 260 penalties called) and presided over one of the worst-officiated games of the year, when the 49ers went to Detroit and beat the Lions. Fans of both teams were bitching after that game.

And after watching Ron Winter’s crew flounder in Denver on Sunday, it’s hard not to be glad that he’ll get the week off.

Complaining about officiating can seem tired, that is until the refs botch a huge call or the game turns on a coach’s challenge. Hopefully Saturday’s game will come down to the players on the field, and not Tarell Brown getting flagged for P.I. simply because the receiver pushed off.

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