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Cowboys vs Commanders referee report: How the zebras could impact Thanksgiving game

It is time to take a look at the officials for Thursday’s Cowboys game.

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Cowboys are gearing up for one of the best traditions in all of football, the Thanksgiving game. This year, they’re facing the Commanders for the first time this season and hoping to notch their third straight victory and their third division win.

As Cowboys fans remember from the Thanksgiving game two years ago, officiating can often play a bigger role than normal in huge games like this. Before diving into the officiating crew for this one, let’s look at the Cowboys’ weekly penalty log on the year.

Cowboys Penalties Week by Week

Cowboys Penalties Penalty Yards Opponent Penalties Penalty Yards
Cowboys Penalties Penalty Yards Opponent Penalties Penalty Yards
at Giants 5 35 6 72
vs Jets 6 38 5 29
at Cardinals 13 107 8 69
vs Patriots 5 32 6 50
at 49ers 6 60 6 45
at Chargers 11 85 9 79
vs Rams 4 21 4 25
at Eagles 10 83 10 98
vs Giants 9 83 2 5
at Panthers 5 45 8 90
Total 74 589 64 562

As expected from last week's referee report, the Cowboys saw fewer penalties than the Panthers in a game that was pretty light on flags: not a single penalty was called in the first quarter. Four of the Cowboys’ five penalties were holding calls, and the Panthers had three pretty blatant unnecessary roughness calls. All in all, the Cowboys had their second lowest single game penalty total of the year, and they should have a shot at matching that this week with Bill Vinovich’s crew on the call.

Vinovich is the most senior official in the NFL, though not the longest tenured. He reached the league as a side judge back in 2001, and made his way up to head referee status for the 2004 season. However, after just three seasons he was forced to retire due to a near-fatal heart condition that required emergency surgery.

After taking considerable time to recover, Vinovich returned to the sidelines as a substitute referee for the 2012 season. He had been a replay assistant in between all of this, but that season marked his return to actually officiating. The next year, Vinovich was back to the regular schedule of a head referee, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Vinovich has established himself as an official that prefers to let teams play. He’s almost always in the bottom quartile of officiating crews in total penalties called, and he was dead last each of the past two seasons. So far this year, he’s seventh in total penalties, a high mark for him. However, 40% of those penalties are made up of just three games, two of which featured the same Broncos team. Given Vinovich’s body of work, it’s pretty easy to dismiss his spike this year as being the product of a small group of particularly sloppy teams.

Like all officials, Vinovich’s crew mostly calls offensive holding and false start penalties. As one would expect from an official with Vinovich’s reputation, he usually doesn’t call these penalties nearly as much as other crews, ranking near the bottom each year. And while that’s held (no pun intended) true this year for one such penalty, Vinovich has called an abnormally high amount of false starts this year, second most of any official. The nature of a false start penalty is one that’s pretty cut and dry, though, so it’s easier to chalk this up to Vinovich calling games with sloppy teams.

One other area that sticks out for Vinovich’s crew this year is a focus on defensive pass interference. Another penalty that Vinovich rarely calls most years, his crew ranks third in pass interference calls so far this season. The two crews ahead of him are ahead by a wide margin, so it’s not like Vinovich is calling defensive pass interference penalties all the time, but it’s definitely more than he’s used to. One thing to note: both Dallas and Washington have just five such penalties this year, one of the lower marks for a team this year.

Vinovich doesn’t really play favorites between the home and away teams, and the splits between the two vary a lot between each year and even each game. This is a referee who doesn’t like to throw the flag, but he’ll call a penalty if he sees it. As a result, the sloppy teams get lots of penalties with him while the more disciplined teams don’t, and it doesn’t matter where the game is being played.

Early in Vinovich’s career, he also had a reputation for being a boon to the home team despite not really playing favorites when it comes to penalty assessment. For his career, the home team is 130-103 when Vinovich calls the game. However, that’s balanced out over the last few years. In fact, since 2017 the home team is just 53-57 in games called by Vinovich, a trend that reflects the overall decline of a homefield advantage over the years.

In total, Vinovich has called a total of 18 Cowboys games as the head referee. His very first game saw Vinny Testaverde throw three picks in a loss to the Bengals. Despite that first game, the Cowboys are 10-8 under Vinovich’s eye and 5-3 at home. The last time Vinovich called a Cowboys game at AT&T Stadium, they blew out Washington 56-14 the day after Christmas of 2021.

The Cowboys will be hoping for a similar outcome this year. They’re favored by 13.5 points, a pretty large spread, and Vinovich’s hands-off approach to officiating shouldn’t interfere much with the flow of the game. For anyone still scarred by that 2021 Thanksgiving game, seeing Vinovich on the call for this one is definitely something to be thankful for.

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