GREEN BAY — As play callers in the National Football League, coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers function as lab rats for analytics departments of opposing teams. The sequencing of their calls is scrutinized so that noteworthy patterns can be found.
But as teams around the league study the habits of the Green Bay Packers, the Packers study their opponents just the same. Capers, whose first coordinator job came with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1986, has notes on all the offensive play callers he’s faced over the last 40 years. As a whole, McCarthy’s staff studies the tendencies of head coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators, individual players and, in all seriousness, the referees.
“You have to look at the officiating crew,” McCarthy said this past week. “Every penalty that occurs, particularly if it’s a team we’re getting ready to play or an officiating crew getting ready to officiate our game, we look at them no differently. It’s all about breaking down the people who are on the field. It’s about behavior, it’s about patterns, it’s about tendencies. You look at all those things.”
Insignificant though it may seem, this peculiarity of preparation carries legitimate import as the Packers prepare for their home opener against the Detroit Lions. The reasons are twofold: 1) A week ago, at home against the Tennessee Titans, the Lions were penalized 17 times for 138 yards, a display that suggested inattention to detail and potentially exploitable behavior. 2) Sunday’s referee, Carl Cheffers, was also in charge for the Packers’ victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Several days later, the league acknowledged Cheffers’ crew missed 16 calls over the course of the game, many of which, according to a report by ESPN, went against the Jaguars. To think that Sunday’s game might be overly tight is not beyond the realm of possibility.
A confluence of the Lions and Cheffers made for an interesting case study that probed how much, or how little, the players themselves study and care about officials. Interviews with four Packers’ defensive backs produced mixed results, even as their potential infractions — i.e. pass interference — often yield the most penalty yardage.
“I think you’ve got to pay attention to it,” Micah Hyde said. “Some guys call it strict. Some guys are a lot more lenient. So you’ve kind of got to know where those guys play out.”
Hyde’s approach toward officiating was by far the most interesting and nuanced of the players interviewed this week. A hybrid corner and safety, Hyde is often tasked with covering the opposing team’s tight end, especially in Capers’ dime defense. Inherently, and unavoidably, he faces a size disadvantage every week.
So before kickoff, Hyde always makes a point to speak with the officials. He explains which players he might be covering and, after several days of film study, what types of infractions he’s seen those players commit.
“Sometimes I might say, ‘This guy I’m guarding today or who I might guard likes to push off. I’m going to have to get into him, and if you think it’s too much, let me know. Just talk to me throughout the game. I’ll talk to you, and we’ll go from there.’
Hyde continued: “I wouldn’t say it gives me calls or gives them calls. I think it’s just understanding. You’re talking to the guys, letting them know what you’re going to be doing. … Obviously if you hold him, no matter what they’re going to throw the flag. But I think this guy, if this is a big tight end, if he gets his hand on my chest and pushes off, there’s nothing I can do about it. So just look out for that stuff and just go from there.”
Chris Banjo, a backup safety, echoed Hyde’s belief that understanding the tendencies of particular referees is important. Just as in-game adjustments are critical depending on the strictness, or laxity, of that particular officiating crew.
When a reporter explained that Cheffers, the referee from Jacksonville, would be in charge at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Banjo was intrigued. (It should be noted, however, that Cheffers is the only holdover from Week 1. The rest of his crew has changed.)
“That is cool to think about,” Banjo said. “Something that maybe you should think about.”
He added: “But even with those tendencies sometimes, just like teams and players and coaches break tendencies, the referees can too. At the end of the day you’ve just got to go in and play fundamentally sound and just go from there.”
On the other end of the spectrum were cornerbacks Damarious Randall and LaDarius Gunter, both major contributors as veteran Sam Shields remains in the concussion protocol. Both younger and less experienced than Hyde and Banjo.
Randall, who was gashed by Vikings’ receiver Stefon Diggs last week, said he pays no attention to who is officiating the game, let alone the tendencies of each official.
“I just play my style of game, and if they call something, they call something,” Randall said. “I couldn’t care less. There are (examples) on every play if you watch film, you can see 50 holding calls or you can see 50 times the receiver pushed off. Some referees call it and some of them don’t. I don’t go into games looking for referees to make a certain call because some of them call it and some of them don’t.”
Gunter echoed Randall and said, deadpan, “I don’t study referees.”
“You’ve got to understand that if he’s throwing (a flag), then that will be in the back of your mind,” Gunter said. “(But) you don’t want to get off your technique just because they’re ranked in a certain way because of the flags they call.”
The second component in Sunday’s equation is the Lions, whose 17 penalties last week weighed heavily on their one-point loss to the Titans.
The breakdown is staggering. There were six penalties against the Lions’ defense, nine against the offense and two against the special teams units. An additional penalty for illegal use of hands was called against defensive end Brandon Copeland, but the Titans mercifully declined.
Three defensive linemen were flagged for jumping offside. Four players were flagged more than once. Three touchdowns were wiped off the board due to penalties. Three.
“We just got to do our job,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell told reporters after the game. “We gotta do a better job of penalties. I mean, 17 penalties is ridiculous.”
Historical context agrees. Only twice since their inception have the Packers committed 17 or more penalties in a game. They matched the Lions with 17 in a game against the Boston Yanks in 1945 — and won. They outdid the Lions in 2010 by committing 18 against the Chicago Bears. This time the Packers lost, 20-17.
We continue: Only twice since their inception have the Packers played a team that committed 17 or more penalties in a game. The Brooklyn Tigers were flagged 22 times back in 1944; they lost, 14-7. The Seattle Seahawks were flagged 17 times in 1984; they beat the Packers, 30-24.
Futility aside, there is valuable insight that can be gleaned from a performance like the Lions had last week. McCarthy and his staff will have combed through the tape to determine which defensive linemen might be susceptible to a hard count. Or which receivers and corners are prone to committing pass interference. Or maybe they identified players who, with the right amount of agitation, are likely to be flagged for personal fouls.
The coaches investigate all of these things, and the players might study them too.
“Oh yeah, that’s football,” Hyde said. “You want to know what the guy in front of you is doing, whether I’m guarding a receiver and he has a quick little push off, (or) I just talked about the tight end putting his hand on my chest, and not really pushing off but arm barring. You kind of want to know what these guys do because you’re going to be playing against them and you want to be able to compete.”