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Cowboys at Dolphins referee report: Will the zebras deliver presents or coal to Dallas?

Our official referee report for Sunday’s Dallas Cowboys game.

NFL: JAN 12 AFC Divisional Playoff - Texans at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cowboys are desperately looking for a bounce-back win this week after getting blown out by the Bills. Their quest for another win won’t be easy, as the Dolphins are one of the best in the league, but Miami is a much more inviting environment than Buffalo this time of year. The weather conditions may be more beneficial, but what about the officiating? Before we get into this week’s referee crew, let’s reflect on last week’s penalty distribution:

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
vs Commanders 7 48 4 25
vs Seahawks 9 127 10 130
vs Eagles 7 60 10 95
at Bills 5 48 1 15
Total 102 872 89 827

The Cowboys were dealt a favorable matchup last week, drawing an official that’s known for giving an advantage to the road team, but it didn’t matter. Dallas was penalized five times in the game, the second-lowest amount they’ve had all year, but Buffalo was only penalized once. The timing of those Cowboys penalties were crucial in letting the Bills control the game from start to finish.

If last week’s officiating assignment was supposed to be a lucky draw for the Cowboys, this week’s is the exact opposite.

Shawn Hochuli is what some would consider officiating royalty, while others would simply call him a nepo baby. If the last name sounds familiar, that’s because his father, Ed Hochuli, was an NFL official for nearly three whole decades. The senior Hochuli became notable for both his sizable biceps and his often long-winded explanations of various calls.

The younger Hochuli, now in his 10th season as an official and sixth as a head referee, has seemingly done his best to emulate his father. He may not be able to bench as much his father, but this Hochuli has also established a reputation for overly intricate explanations of calls. This has often coincided with Hochuli’s crew calling some of the more obscure penalties and, in turn, led to a criticism that Hochuli actively looks for opportunities to give such complex explanations.

As far as the actual assessment of penalties goes, Hochuli’s crew has often been known as one of the stricter crews in the league. In three of his first four seasons as a head referee, Hochuli was in the top three in total penalties called, leading the league in 2018; in each of those seasons, his crew never averaged less than 12 penalties per game, often surpassing that number easily.

That number has shrunk the last two years, though. Hochuli was fourth in penalties a year ago, but averaged a career low 11.71 flags per game, and so far this year his crew is ninth in total penalties and averaging 11.92 per game.

The most noticeable trend for Hochuli’s crew, though, is the split between home and road penalties. Hochuli clearly believes in giving the home team the benefit of the doubt, having called more penalties on the road team in all but one season as a head referee. The lone exception was last season, when he finished with exactly one more flag on the home team. In all of Hochuli’s other seasons of leading his own crew, the road team has finished with a significantly higher penalty total for the year.

Generally speaking, Hochuli’s lopsided assessments of penalties has not led to a disproportionate winning percentage for the home, as they’re just 47-45 throughout Hochuli’s career as a head referee. However, the home team is 20-10 in the last two seasons, a developing trend at a time when homefield advantage has generally declined in recent years.

Hochuli doesn’t have too many penalty-specific trends, as his crew tends to call a wide variety of things. However, there are some interesting points to note. Hochuli leads the league in roughing the passer penalties, with nearly double the crew in second place; Miami and Dallas have each been called for that penalty once this season. Hochuli also leads the league in illegal use of hands penalties. Interestingly, this crew is dead last in both false start penalties and defensive pass interference penalties.

As mentioned before, Hochuli’s crew often comes up with some of the more obscure calls. For example, his crew leads the league in chop block penalties, having called as many this year as every other crew combined. He’s also thrown two flags for ineligible downfield kick, which isn't a lot but he’s also the only head referee to have called that penalty more than once so far this year. Don’t be surprised if this game sees a flag thrown for a penalty you didn’t know existed.

Since becoming a head referee, Hochuli has called six Cowboys games and the team is 3-3 in those games. Curiously, though, they’re 2-1 in road games that Hochuli calls, with the one loss coming in the 2021 season opener against the Buccaneers. That’s also the only time the Cowboys have been the less penalized team under Hochuli.

Of course, the most memorable game with Hochuli came later in that 2021 season, on Thanksgiving. Facing the Raiders, Dallas was penalized a whopping 14 times, with four pass interference calls specifically against Anthony Brown, who had just one such penalty for the entire season coming into that game. Afterwards, Jerry Jones even voiced his displeasure at the amount of penalties in that game.

As for the Dolphins, they’ve played just three games with Hochuli as the head referee and have yet to lose with him on the call. Granted, all three of those games have come in Miami, but that still seems pertinent with this game also at home for them. Interestingly, though, Hochuli’s last game for the Dolphins - November of last year - was his first Dolphins game since his first season as a head referee. Simply put, he’s more familiar with the Cowboys than he is the Dolphins. Whether that bodes well for Dallas or not is anyone’s guess.

All in all, Hochuli is one of the more unpredictable officials out there. His crew seems to be on the decline in terms of how often they throw the flag, but this is also a crew that is much harder on the road team while usually watching out for the types of penalties no other crew calls. That makes it hard to know what kind of impact this crew will actually have on the game, but it seems unlikely that a team as heavily penalized as the Cowboys will benefit from having Hochuli in charge this Sunday.

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