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Cowboys at 49ers referee report: Sunday Night Football matchup draws rookie referee

Alan Eck gets his first big game as a head ref.

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys are gearing up for arguably the biggest game of the entire 2023 season so far as they travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers. Given that this team has knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs each of the last two years, and the overall history between these franchises, the game has appropriately been scheduled for Sunday Night Football. However, in an odd move, the game has drawn the officiating crew of Alan Eck.

This is unexpected because Eck is in his first season ever as a head referee in the NFL. Typically speaking, the NFL likes to assign more seasoned officiating crews to the big games, but it seems they are placing plenty of faith in the fairly green Eck.

Of course, Eck is no stranger to officiating. He joined the NFL in 2016 as a side judge under veteran referee Walt Coleman. After his first season, Eck moved up to umpire, a title he held for six seasons. During that time, he served under other veteran referees like Tony Corrente and John Hussey.

Prior to the NFL, though, Eck was a college football referee. He first started in the Mountain West before moving up to the Big 12 level. While referee statistics are significantly harder to find for college football games than they are in the NFL, Eck had a bit of a reputation for calling more penalties on the home team than the road team.

Eck also found himself at the center of plenty of controversy in his final season in the Big 12 for some questionable penalties assessed to the Texas Longhorns in a close loss to Oklahoma State. Eck and his crew became the subject of much debate as a result, and the Big 12 head of officiating at the time, Walt Anderson, had to come out publicly and (mostly) defend Eck. Anderson is now once again Eck’s boss, as Anderson is the head of officiating for the NFL; it’s worth noting, however, that Anderson was not in that role when Eck first joined the NFL.

So how does one conduct research on a referee with just four games under his belt? Well, for starters, we can look at the officials he was mentored by. Coleman, who most notably made the controversial call in the Tuck Rule game, had a reputation as a referee that let the games play out between the two teams, often holstering his penalty flag. Corrente, who retired after last year, often found himself at the center of many controversial calls and was even accused by a former player of holding grudges against teams and players. And Hussey, who is still in the NFL, is consistently near the bottom of the league in total penalties called each year.

So far this year, none of that has really translated to the games Eck has called. He’s currently right in the middle of the league in total penalties called, and is calling slightly more penalties on the road team than the home team at a 44/56 split. Of course, this is a very small sample size to work with, and a closer examination of his four games tells more of the story.

In Week 1, Eck called the Commanders/Cardinals game; Washington was called for eight penalties while Arizona had nine. The next week, Eck called the Titans/Chargers game; the home team Titans had seven penalties while the Chargers had just four. Then it was the Chiefs hosting the Bears; Kansas City had three penalties to Chicago’s six. Most recently, Eck called the Thursday Night Football game between the Lions and Packers; Green Bay, playing at home, were assessed four penalties to Detroit’s eight.

You might notice that the home team is 3-1 in Eck’s short tenure as a head referee, but it’s not necessarily the case that he favors the home team. The more penalized team is only 2-2 so far in games Eck calls, which doesn’t exactly suggest a real trend for how he controls the game. It is worth pointing out that the team favored to win is 3-1 in these games, with the lone exception being an overtime game between the Chargers and Titans. Additionally, three of these four games have seen the point totals hit the over, which is usually an indicator of an officiating crew that gives leeway to the offenses of both teams.

To that point, the vast majority of post-snap penalties called by Eck’s crew have come against the defense. He’s in the top three in the following penalty categories, almost exclusively called on the defense: roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness, defensive offsides, and lowering the head to make forcible contact.

Oddly enough, though, Eck has been very hands-off when it comes to defensive backs. Only two referee crews have called fewer pass interference penalties, and he has yet to enforce a defensive holding or illegal contact penalty this year. That could be pivotal in this game, with two defenses who thrive on their physicality with receivers.

Eck’s crew is also tied for the league lead in delay of game calls through four weeks. The other officiating crew, run by Scott Novak, called the Cowboys/Patriots game last week and did, in fact, call such a penalty against the Patriots. Expect Eck’s crew to be watching the play clock closely in this one as well.

All in all, it’s tough to know what to expect from Eck with such a small sample size. He does seem to favor offenses either way, though holding and false start penalties will not be overlooked. But he also has a tendency to let defensive backs get a little physical. Eck has yet to establish himself one way or the other as someone who controls the game or lets the teams just go out there and play.

This will be Eck’s second primetime game after TNF a week ago, a game in which the more penalized team won by multiple scores. It’s hard to predict Eck’s influence this week, but with a likely massive audience it seems probable that he’ll opt to keep things fair between the two teams and simply let the best man win.

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