Rams, Patriots fans unhappy with referee assignments for conference championship games

NFL game officials have some of the tougher jobs going — they watch dozens of different things on any given snap, make critical decisions in the blink of an eye and on the occasion they make a mistake, it’s not well-received.

The fan bases of two of the four teams in this weekend’s NFL conference championship games are already mad at who will be officiating the games — and kickoff is still days away.

Rams fan starts a petition

When the Los Angeles Rams face the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome for the NFC crown, the lead game official will be referee Bill Vinovich.

Vinovich has been an NFL referee for 10 seasons, from 2004-06, and again since 2012. (He took a break for several years after being diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition in 2007.)

Vinovich was also the referee when the Rams hosted the Saints in Week 9 this season, a game Los Angeles lost.

It turns out the Rams have lost every game Vinovich has officiated since his return from health issues several years ago, all eight of them. (He also was referee for four Rams games from 2004-06, and the Rams were 2-2 in those.)

One Los Angeles fan, Andrew Liptock, has started a petition at change.org, directed to NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, to have Vinovich removed as referee for Sunday. Liptock writes, “How is it possible that Bill Vinovich and crew have been assigned to the NFC Championship game? It’s no secret that the Rams strangely have a tough time when he is the head [official], with a handful of questionable calls in most games.”

Liptock points to the first Rams-Saints meeting this season, when the Rams faked a field goal with the game tied, 14-14, in the second quarter. Punter and holder Johnny Hekker got the snap and instead of Greg Zuerlein attempting the 34-yard kick, Hekker kept the ball and took off for the right sideline.

It appeared Hekker got to the first-down marker before he was knocked out of bounds, but Vinovich’s crew disagreed. Rams coach Sean McVay challenged the spot of the ball, but the call was upheld.

“There is no reason to repeat the exact same officiating crew for the rematch in the playoffs, other than to stack the odds for Drew Brees to go out with a ring,” Liptock wrote in his petition. “There are TONS of other combinations the NFL could have chosen. Whether or not the bias is intentional, there is too much data to demonstrate a pattern, and for a corporation as big as the NFL to not see this pattern is highly unlikely. The magnitude of this game is too large and the referees should be neutral, plain and simple.”

As of this writing, 1,060 people have signed the petition.

Does fan have a good argument?

Liptock makes some good arguments in his petition — aside from that 0-8 mark since 2012, he notes that Vinovich’s crew has always penalized the Rams more than their opponents.

That’s true: via the statistics at pro-football-reference.com, Vinovich’s crew has penalized the Rams 61 times for 573 yards, while opponents were penalized 36 times for 317 yards. In an October 2012 meeting between the Rams and Packers, both teams were penalized 30 yards, but the Rams were flagged six times and Green Bay three.

Last month, when the Rams hosted the Eagles, Los Angeles was penalized five times for 50 yards, and Philadelphia six times for 49 yards.

The Rams were the road team in six of the eight games.

Overall this season, 49.16 percent of the penalties called by Vinovich’s crew were against the home team, and there was a perfect 50-50 split in the home team winning vs. the road team in his 16 regular-season games.

The NFL grades officials and crews throughout the season; the highest-graded crews work the playoffs. This is the fourth time Vinovich will referee a conference championship.

Patriots fans’ uproar may be unfounded

Clete Blakeman has been tabbed to lead the crew for the AFC championship game, and New England Patriots fans are none too happy about that, either. (Examples, some with salty language, hereherehere and here.)

Blakeman wasn’t an on-field official for the 2014 AFC title game, but as an alternate official, he had a hand in the deflate-gate saga: Blakeman was one of the men who measured the air pressure of the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts footballs at halftime of that game.

The gauge used by Blakeman showed that the 11 New England footballs he measured were below the NFL-mandated 12.5 PSI standard; however, all of his measurements were less than those taken by the other alternate official, Dyrol Prioleau, who used a different gauge.

Blakeman has been the referee for four Patriots games since that night, including last year’s AFC championship. New England is 2-2 in those games. Blakeman’s crew has called more penalties on the Patriots’ opponent in three of those four games.

In last year’s AFC title game, when the Patriots hosted Jacksonville, the Jaguars were flagged six times for 98 yards, while New England was penalized once for 10 yards.

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