The Cowboys are preparing for their first home game of the new year and looking to replicate the dominance they displayed last week in a 40-0 win over the Giants. When they welcome the Aaron Rodgers-less Jets to AT&T Stadium on Sunday, they’ll be doing so alongside the referee crew of Clete Blakeman.
Fun fact about Blakeman: he was the backup quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers during their dynasty years in the 80’s. Though he only played sparingly behind starter Steve Taylor, Blakeman has his own special place in Cornhusker lore. The Nebraska native also owns his own personal injury law firm in addition to calling NFL games on Sundays. It seems football games aren’t the only time Blakeman combats illegal contact.
Blakeman kicked off his 14th season as a head referee last week between the Browns and Bengals. His long tenure has seen quite a bit of change when it comes to trends and how Blakeman’s crew tends to call games. When Blakeman first became a head referee, his crew was very lenient and consistently near the bottom of the league in penalties called, with a clear advantage given to the home team in penalty counts.
Since then, though, Blakeman’s crew has become more strict in enforcing the rules but balanced it out between the home and road teams. In each of the last two years, Blakeman’s crew was in the top five in total penalties called, but the splits between home and road teams were almost exactly even. Last week in Cleveland, Blakeman called just one more penalty on the Browns than he did the Bengals; only three other games had fewer penalties in Week 1.
This has resulted in Blakeman, now the second-longest tenured head referee, recently developing a reputation for being fairly strict in calling games but also fair, as his crew tends to call things the same way on both sides. This has arguably had the effect of increasing the value of homefield advantages for teams when Blakeman calls games. Over Blakeman’s 14 years as a head referee, the home team is 114-93 (55.1% win percentage). But the 2021 and 2022 seasons, when Blakeman really narrowed the divide in penalties called, the home team is 21-13, a marginally better 61.8% win percentage.
Like all referee crews, the majority of the penalties Blakeman’s crew calls are offensive holding and false start. However, in the last two years Blakeman’s crew has consistently been one of the bigger sticklers in holding calls while being very lenient on false start penalties.
One area where Blakeman’s crew has stood out is their officiating of defensive backs. They were in the top five each of the last two years in defensive holding calls and, after being near the bottom of the league for quite some time, jumped into the top five in pass interference calls last year. Both the Cowboys and Jets feature defensive backs that employ a lot of physical press coverage techniques, so it will be interesting to see if Blakeman’s crew calls things close or decides to let both teams play to their usual methods.
Blakeman has called 10 games for the Cowboys in his tenure as a head referee, and Dallas is 4-6 in those games. All six of those losses have come at home, but it’s worth noting that three of them (2010 vs Jacksonville, 2015 vs New England, and 2020 vs Arizona) saw the Cowboys playing without their starting quarterback. This will be the first time Blakeman has called a Cowboys game in the McCarthy era with Prescott suited up.
Blakeman’s crew profiles very similarly to that of Adrian Hill, whose crew called the Cowboys game last week. That checks out too, as Hill was once part of Blakeman’s crew before being promoted to a head referee himself. Blakeman tends to be a bit more strict, but does not really play favorites between the home and road teams. The Cowboys’ five penalties in Week 1 were among the fewest in the NFL, and that seems likely to be the case again this week.