Roughing the bet slip

The Basics
4 Min
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Let’s be honest, no one really loves NFL referees, but what if you could use the men and women in black and white stripes to help you gain an advantage on your NFL bets? While we don’t advise placing an NFL wager based solely on the referees, there are certain trends and tendencies to look out for which can impact your bet slip.


With the NFL aspiring to have more and more close, high scoring games in an effort to grow TV ratings, the 2020 season saw a major shift in the way games are being officiated to accommodate this ambition. Consequently, this has also had an impact on how bettors and handicappers assess key NFL betting markets, in particular totals and prop bets.


NFL referees made history during the 2020 season, enforcing more defensive penalties than offensive penalties (52 more in total) for the first time ever. To put that into context, the previous 11 NFL seasons saw referees enforce 3,272 more offensive penalties than defensive penalties, for an average of 297 per season. That’s a swing of nearly 350 penalties across the course of the season!


The most notable areas where referees are influencing NFL games is with an extreme drop in holding calls and an increase in defensive pass interference calls. 


Let’s consider the consequences of fewer holding calls during a game. It means fewer drive-killing penalties that run more time off the clock before a pun as well as possibly reducing the number of big offensive gains that are wiped out a by a flag. Conversely, defensive pass interference penalties extend drives, and have a hugely significant impact from an offensive yardage stand point.


Put simply, this shift in how games are being officiated means more offensive yards gained and thus, more points scored. From a betting perspective, this has obvious implications for totals markets, with over/under lines being steadily increased by sportsbooks as they race to adjust to the change.


While we’ve already spoken about the obvious impact this has on totals bets, it’s also worth noting that prop bets markets have been shaken up by the new way in which referees are interpreting the rules.


By calling less offensive holding penalties, referees are indirectly cutting down the number of sacks, which dipped to near an all-time low last seasons. This allows quarterbacks more time in the pocket to throw pin-point passes, which is great news for bettors who’ve picked the over for the quarterback’s passing yards total prop.


In addition to this, rushing yards per attempt reached an all-time high during the 2020 season as running backs (and mobile quarterbacks) were afforded more space to run the football. Again, great news for bettors who’ve taken the over for a running back or quarterback’s rushing yards total prop. 


The consistency with which NFL referees have applied these new rules interpretations across the board indicates they’re following a league-wide directive. And while referees are all expected to be impartial and utilize the rule book in the exact same manner, it must be noted that certain officials have tendencies which savvy bettors can exploit.


Referees are human beings and as such they are prone to making mistakes. Some like to be the center of attention, some are influenced by the home crowd, while others lean towards the underdogs. As a bettor, understanding these tendencies is just another way to help inform yourself before placing your NFL wagers.


For example, the under hits in 57.3% of NFL games when Tony Corrente is the head referee, while the over is 57.7% in games where Jerome Boger is the head referees. More information like this is available online with a simple Google search. Referees for each game are usually announced in the days before the contest.


Especially given the new ways in which referees are applying the NFL rules, it could be valuable to understand what type of penalty flags each referee is prone to throwing. For example, there is a referee who typically doesn’t make many offensive holding calls, they are probably even less likely to do so in the current environment, which could lead to a high scoring game with lots of passing and rushing offense.


As we mentioned, it’s probably not wise to make an NFL bet based purely on the influence of referees, but it’s certainly worth including in the mix of your considerations, along with our other Bet Basics tips and strategies for successful NFL betting.


If you do identify something notable during your research that could influence your betting strategy, it’s important to make sure you’re finding the best odds for that bet. Check out our list of top regulated and legal sportsbooks where you can score exclusive offers and promotions courtesy of the team here at Bet Basics.

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