ESPN Staff Writer
- Data analyst and reporter for ESPN’s Enterprise and Investigative Unit.
- Winner, 2014 Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award; finalist, 2012 IRE broadcast award; winner, 2011 Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism; Emmy nominated, 2009.
ESPN Senior Writer
- Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. She previously wrote for The Kansas City Star and The Omaha World-Herald.
Feb 9, 2024, 07:41 AM ET
This NFL season was exceptional for both officiating controversy as well as the speculation surrounding the Chiefs and the idea that the NFL — in a frenzied effort to increase ratings — wanted to showcase the triumvirate of MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, premier tight end Travis Kelce and, of course, Taylor Swift, whose romance with Kelce and sightings at games became its own sideshow.
No matter the theory, part of the suspicion rested with the officiating and a perceived favoritism to all things Kansas City.
However, an ESPN analysis of penalty data showed that while the Chiefs did see some of their lowest percentages of overall game penalties in the playoffs this season, they did not benefit from fewer penalties than their opponents in the regular season.
Most of the time — 12 out of 17 games in the regular season — the officials threw more flags against the Chiefs than their opponents, according to ESPN’s analysis, which included those that were declined or offset. The plays on which fans decry a missed call — which can be subjective — aren’t captured in the numbers provided to ESPN.
The Chiefs were the sixth most penalized team in the NFL during the regular season, tied with the Tennessee Titans, at 126 penalties, or about 7.4 per game. That’s higher than the overall regular season average of 6.8.
Another way to look at it: Officials called 95 penalties against Chiefs opponents. Only the New England Patriots and Chicago Bears saw fewer collective penalties against their opponents in the regular season. About 96% of penalties against Chiefs opponents happened before the final two minutes of a game.
The Chiefs won four of five games where they had fewer penalties and won seven of 12 games in which they had more. (And Kansas City had fewer penalties in five of the nine regular-season games Swift attended.)
The numbers did change during the playoffs. However, the sample size is too small to be conclusive, and it’s important to note that penalties per game trended downward during playoff games across the league, according to ESPN’s analysis.
In all three postseason games, the Chiefs received fewer flags than their opponents, seeing their lowest percentage all season during the AFC Championship Game, when they had three penalties and the Baltimore Ravens had eight.
The percentage of penalties against the Chiefs has not always tracked with their postseason success. Over 17 playoff games in the past six seasons, during which time the Chiefs have played in every AFC Championship Game, they have lost three times. They had fewer penalties in two of those losses and more in one: 13 penalties to Tampa Bay’s four, in Super Bowl LV to cap off the 2020 season. They’ve won 10 times when they’ve had fewer penalties and four times when they had equal or more than their opponent.
To fans of the other 31 teams, Mahomes is often seen as the NFL’s darling, the beneficiary of “Michael Jordan rules,” or protection calls that his counterparts don’t receive. But the 2023 data show only one roughing the passer call against an opponent among the 16 regular-season games he played. That happened Nov. 21, with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, when Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox drew the penalty during a Mahomes pass to Kelce.
In the playoffs, Mahomes drew four total roughing the passer calls: two against the Miami Dolphins and two against Baltimore. Of those, a late call against Miami’s Christian Wilkins in the fourth quarter probably generated the most debate. Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel took his hat off — in subzero temperatures — after Wilkins pushed Mahomes, who fell to the ground. Fans groused that the refs missed a Chiefs holding penalty on the same play. After the game, Wilkins said, “I thought I was just doing my job. I thought I was good, but I guess not. It’s a judgment call, but it is what it is.”
When asked about the difference between the Chiefs’ penalties from the regular season to the playoffs, a league official noted that the sample size is 12 games vs. 272 in the regular season.
Dean Blandino, the former NFL vice president of officiating from 2013 to 2017 who is now a regular Fox Sports analyst on penalty calls, said it wouldn’t make sense to wait for the playoffs to enact some purposeful scheme.
“If they want [the Chiefs] in the postseason,” Blandino said, “then you’re taking a chance in the regular season because they might not make it.”
During a Super Bowl briefing Monday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell praised the league’s officials. “I think in the NFL the level of scrutiny is at the highest I’ve ever seen it and that’s part of our popularity,” he said.
Goodell laughed when asked about Swift and the allegations that the league is scripted. “I don’t think I’m that good a scripter, or anybody on our staff,” he said. “There is no way I could have scripted that one.”
Blandino said it’s not just numbers that should debunk perceptions of officiating bias.
“You’ve got so many different moving parts, you have different officials, you have different crews. …” he said. “The coordinating that would have to take place for some of these conspiracy theories, it would be beyond the scope of what the officiating department is capable of.”
Still, even people he’s close to believe the NFL is scripted. He has a brother who he said is “the No. 1 conspiracy theorist,” who texted him repeatedly during the AFC Championship Game to provide instances in which he believed the game was rigged to get the Chiefs into the Super Bowl.
“I love him to death,” Blandino said.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘I don’t know how we were raised in the same household.'”
While the data allow fans to draw comparisons on penalties called against teams, for some the issue isn’t when a penalty is called; it’s when it isn’t.
One of the most controversial no-calls in the Chiefs-Ravens game Jan. 28 occurred in the fourth quarter, when Baltimore, trailing 17-7, drove to the Kansas City 25-yard line. Receiver Isaiah Likely appeared to be shoved in the back, and Deon Bush intercepted Lamar Jackson‘s pass in the end zone. But there was no flag on the play.
Jackson, who on Thursday was named the league’s MVP, threw the ball into triple coverage, which may have drawn the ire of Ravens fans as much as the no-call. Ken Weinman, radio host of the Inside Access show on 105.7 the Fan, said the Monday after was “a heated day.” His phone lines lit up.
But the anger was directed in some unexpected places. People phoned in to blast Jackson, call for coach John Harbaugh’s resignation and question the playcalling. Only 15 to 20% of the calls, Weinman said, were centered on NFL conspiracy theories and officiating.
“But there were calls that were, like, ‘They wanted Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl; they wanted the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. They don’t want the Ravens,”’ Weinman said. “Baltimore’s already got an inferiority complex as it is. … So any chance some fans get to sort of pump their chest about how we’re not good enough, they take that opportunity.”
Fran Lucia, a Ravens fan who said he coined the acronym “National Fixed League,” believes the officials played an outcome in the game.
He watched Ravens linebacker Kyle Van Noy receive a personal foul penalty for unnecessary roughness — he headbutted Kelce — and doesn’t understand why Kelce wasn’t flagged because, Lucia said, Kelce was chirping and instigating all game. He even laughed after the flag on Van Noy was thrown.
“That’s irritating,” Lucia said, “and I think the fans are saying, ‘Wait a minute. Now we’ve got the Taylor Swift Factor. Now we’ve got the TV cameras rotating up into the penthouse suite. We’re watching Kelce do what he’s doing on the field to get under their skin and it worked.'”
Ravens fans were so angry that shortly after the game, one confronted members of the CBS broadcasting team at the Amtrak station in Baltimore, claiming that the NFL was rigged. Boomer Esiason, describing the incident on WFAN, said the fan was so belligerent that the police had to intervene.
The Bills’ playoff loss to the Chiefs in the divisional round also saw a controversial call. Kansas City was up 27-24 with 9:31 left in the fourth quarter, and facing third-and-6 at its 47-yard line when Mahomes threw the ball away after linebacker Dorian Williams made contact with intended receiver Rashee Rice near the line of scrimmage. But the contact occurred before the ball left Mahomes’ hands and within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, making it appear legal under NFL rules. After a protest from Mahomes and a huddle between the officials, pass interference was called, giving the Chiefs a first down.
The Chiefs failed to score on the drive, and Buffalo was shut out in its final possession. Del Reid, cofounder of the Bills Mafia and Buffalo’s 2023 NFL Fan of the Year, said as the stadium emptied after the game, he couldn’t bring himself to leave his seat. He truly believed the Bills were going to pull it off. But he didn’t point fingers.
“I have a really hard time blaming officiating,” Reid said. “Now, there’s been times, like on Twitter where I’ve gotten pretty upset in terms of calls and officiating. But when you take a step back and you’re not thinking with your emotions and you’re using your rational brain … as frustrated as I get with referees, they have an incredibly difficult job to do.
“The whole script thing is absolutely ridiculous. … Why would they script Tom Brady and the Patriots winning for like 20 years straight? What a boring script.”
ESPN’s John Mastroberardino, Kevin Seifert and Shwetha Surendran contributed to this story.