• Chiefs received a decided boost when the NFL assigned referee Shawn Smith to this game
  • Under Smith, home teams are only 17-29-3 against the spread (37.0%) in the last three years
  • In total this year, Smith called 924 yards in penalties on home teams and 709 penalty yards on road teams
  • Offensive holding penalties declined 65% in the Divisional Round vs. what those teams averaged during the regular season

On Tuesday, the NFL assigned Shawn Smith to ref the Chiefs road game against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

Immediately, I groaned, as I knew his overwhelming tendency to favor the road team, and I wanted nothing more than to see as clean and unbiased a game as possible.

Home teams have won only 40.8% of games in the last three years with Smith as referee.

That is the lowest win rate for any referee in the NFL.

Across the NFL, home teams have won 55.4% of games during that span. With Smith, the rate precipitously drops down to 40.8%.

Maybe the road teams are just that much better in the games he is assigned to call. I hoped that was the case, but then I looked at the great equalizer: the point spread.

The point spread takes into account which team is better.

Across the NFL in the last three seasons, home teams have covered 49.4% of spreads.

That means that even if home teams were winning only 40.8% of games under Smith, we hopefully would find they are still covering close to 50%.

That wasn’t close to being the case.

Under Smith, home teams are only 17-29-3 against the spread (37.0%) in the last three years.

This is the second-lowest mark among 19 referees.

Even if you expand beyond the last three seasons to when Smith began as head referee in 2018, road teams have the NFL’s best win percentage with Smith.

He ranks #1 out of 24 referees in road team win percentage since 2018.

Referee Assignments for the AFC and NFC Championship Games

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Were there other NFL referee options for Chiefs vs. Ravens?

With road teams having such success under Smith, this hurts the Baltimore Ravens.

And it certainly doesn’t help with conspiracy theories that the NFL would like nothing more than to see new Chiefs #1 fan Taylor Swift and her legendary fan base of the Swifties in the Super Bowl and buying up all the Super Bowl merchandise.

What were the alternatives for the NFL rather than assigning the biggest road referee to the Chiefs’ road game?

According to our lead ref analyst, Joe Gibbs, a pool of about eight referees legitimately could have been assigned to this game.

That is because the refs who did the Divisional Round would not be assigned to the next round’s game, and five other referees have a current ceiling (based on experience) of doing only the Wild Card Round.

With the NFL seemingly desiring to hold back Brad Allen due to the controversial ending in the Lions vs. Cowboys game, that left only eight referees to choose from.

Shawn Smith was one of those eight. Making things more interesting is the other ref who was assigned to the NFC Championship Game, Clete Blakeman.

Blakeman is the exact opposite of Smith.

Home teams with Blakeman are 31-19 (62.0%) the last three seasons, the #3 highest win rate in that span.

And home teams under Blakeman have covered the spread in 57.1% of games, the #2 highest rate.

So, out of eight possible referees the NFL could have assigned to Championship games this weekend, the NFL selected the most road-friendly ref available (Smith) and put him on the Chiefs’ road game.

The NFL had the most home-friendly ref available but selected him to work the 49ers home game instead.

Why are NFL road/away teams faring so well with Shawn Smith as referee?

It’s one thing to look at the game results and see that road teams win at the highest rate in the NFL with Smith on the whistle.

It’s another thing to look at the rate at which those road teams cover the spread and outperform expectations to a degree that road teams don’t typically hit under any other referee.

But it could all be noise if there isn’t an identifiable reason that differentiates Smith from other referees.

Looking at his history of penalties in these games, there must be signs that separate him from other referees to produce the signal needed to generate such outrageous results.

Is there anything to show why are road teams winning so frequently with Smith in charge?

As it turns out, yes.

The way Smith penalizes home teams is extremely atypical and is the impetus for why home teams perform so poorly rather than pure happenstance or noise.

Smith calls the game very differently in favor of road teams.

Let’s look at the following example related to false starts.

Leaguewide over the last three seasons, in games Smith did not officiate, the following false start penalties were flagged:

  • 843 false start penalties on the home team
  • 882 false start penalties on the road team

That’s 4.6% more false start penalties on the road team.

Note: All penalty stats per TruMedia

And it makes perfect sense. Road teams are more likely to have false start penalties because of crowd noise.

Home teams operate in a far more quiet environment offensively. When the road team has the ball on offense, however, the crowd is screaming and trying to impact the game, often in a false start.

And we certainly know from 2023 specifically how false start penalties are not cut and dry. Sometimes it certainly looks like a flag should be thrown for a false start but one is not, and at times a flag is thrown when there doesn’t appear to be a false start.

Sometimes, there is a question as to whether there was an offside or false start, and the refs huddle to discuss and deliver the verdict.

The bottom line is there is a lot of judgment in these calls. That said, most refs call more false starts on road teams.

But in the last three years, Smith has called:

  • 62 false starts against home teams
  • 46 false starts against road teams

Bucking the average of 4.6% more on the road team, Smith has called 34.8% more false starts on the home teams.

This is a massive change from typical officiating.

But it’s not just false start penalties that uncharacteristically favor the road team to a massive degree.

Smith skews massively towards the road team in an entire class of penalties that typically favor the home team.

One by one, let’s walk through each of them.

Referee Shawn Smith penalty disparity & trends

In the last three years, Smith has called:

  • 26 unnecessary roughness penalties against home teams
  • 19 unnecessary roughness penalties against road teams

The non-Smith NFL average is 12.7% more unnecessary roughness penalties on ROAD teams, but Smith calls 36.8% more unnecessary roughness penalties on HOME teams.

  • 12 roughing the passer penalties against home teams
  • 7 roughing the passer penalties against road teams

The non-Smith NFL average is 7.6% more roughing the passer penalties on ROAD teams, but Smith calls 71.4% more roughing the passer penalties on HOME teams.

  • 7 illegal formation penalties against home teams
  • 3 illegal formation penalties against road teams

The non-Smith NFL average is 3.7% more illegal formation penalties on ROAD teams, but Smith calls 133% more illegal formation penalties on HOME teams.

  • 6 illegal shift penalties against home teams
  • 1 illegal shift penalty against road teams

The non-Smith NFL average is 40.0% more illegal shift penalties on ROAD teams, but Smith calls 500% more illegal shift penalties on HOME teams.

A lot of these penalties, though we wish were perfectly cut and dry, have large amounts of subjectivity thrown into them.

And over a three-year sample across nearly 50 games (49) and hundreds of penalties, Smith has shown a huge tendency to call penalties that favor road teams in a way no other ref in the NFL has done.

This is a big part of the reason why home teams have won just 40% of games the last three seasons when he is on the whistle and why road teams tend to have the upper hand.

And this season, it has gotten even worse.

Shawn Smith penalty history & disparity in the 2023 season

Smith was well above the NFL average in a few penalty types this season.

For all of the above penalties discussed already (false start, unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, illegal formation, illegal shift), he called more on home teams than road teams.

But a couple of penalty types stand out:

  • False start: 22 home, 13 road (69% more on the home team) whereas the NFL average this year was 7.6% more on the road team.
  • Holding: 17 home, 10 road (70% more on the home team) whereas the NFL average this year was 17.2% more on the home team.

In total this year, Smith called 924 yards in penalties on home teams and 709 penalty yards on road teams.

That’s 215 more yards on home teams or 30% more yards on home teams than road teams.

Across the NFL in games he didn’t officiate, there were 12,113 penalty yards on home teams and 12,636 penalty yards on road teams, or 4.3% more yards on road teams than home teams.

This penalty disparity in favor of the road team for Smith games is part of the reason home teams went a dreadful 3-11-2 against the spread (21.4%) and won just 3 of 16 games he called.

In the playoffs, is it really Shawn Smith’s crew?

This is a big question that is frequently asked about refs and the playoffs.

Sure, these Smith penalty stats and the strong results for road teams are eye opening, but is it really his crew calling the AFC Championship?

I asked our ref expert Joe Gibbs. His response:

Largely, yes.

They will swap out a couple of officials, but usually, most of the crew is the same crew the head referee worked with during the season.

But people get lost in the thought process of the individuals of the crew. Think of the head referee as the coach or the CEO of a company.

He tells his crew what he wants to emphasize, how close he wants things called, and how he wants them to approach their responsibilities.

It’s no different than replacing an accountant at a large firm. The new accountant will be instructed on what to do and how to do it, and they will largely abide by the guidelines given by their boss.

Or swapping out David Montgomery for Jahmyr Gibbs. Gibbs will still be doing what he is instructed to do by his coaches on given plays, even though he is a different running back.

The same is true for crew members. A few will be different, but they will call the game the way the head referee instructs them to.

What if the NFL placed Clete Blakeman on the Chiefs-Ravens game?

If the NFL placed Clete Blakeman on the Chiefs-Ravens game instead of Shawn Smith, two factors would have been at play.

First, Blakeman is a very favorable ref to home teams, as mentioned above. Home teams with Blakeman are 31-19 (62.0%) the last three seasons, the #3 highest win rate in that span.

But additionally, the Chiefs are 5-6 SU & 4-7 ATS with Blakeman in the Patrick Mahomes era. Out of the 11 games Blakeman called, the Chiefs are 0-2 on the road, the most recent being a road loss in 2021 to the Ravens in Baltimore.

I mention the last point because there was discussion last week about Shawn Hochuli being the ref for the Chiefs-Bills game, and the Chiefs were 8-2 (80%) with Hochuli.

And the discussion was something similar to, “Of course, the Chiefs have an 80% record with a certain ref because they have won basically 80% of their games in the Mahomes era.”

But clearly that has not been the case with Clete Blakeman, although the 11-game sample size is relatively small.

That said, the NFL could have put Blakeman on the Chiefs game, and if history is a guide, he may have called a game to favor the home Ravens more.

Instead, the NFL put Smith, the biggest road referee in the NFL on the game.

More About NFL Playoff Referee Trends

As we head into the Conference Championship Games, it’s worth looking back on the prior rounds to see if there are any trends we can learn from.

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