The Cowboys are preparing to go on the road and face the 0-2 Cardinals, believed by many to be tanking this year despite narrow losses to the Commanders and Giants to start the season. Dallas enters the game as a heavy favorite, and understandably so, but could any of that be impacted by Alex Kemp? That’s the man who will be calling this game.
Kemp is in the midst of his sixth season as a head referee in the NFL, making him one of the younger head referees out there. He’s not lacking in experience, though, and has clearly already gotten a grasp on the intense spotlight that comes with the job, as evidenced by his comment in last week’s Seahawks-Lions game.
Referee Alex Kemp is talking to America now.pic.twitter.com/yrBlYS9j9f— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) September 17, 2023
Kemp is known to be one of the more strict officials in the league, often calling a tight game that results in a lot of flags being thrown. His crew has been in the top 10 in total flags thrown every year that he’s been a head referee, and he actually led the league in penalties called for the 2020 season.
Interestingly enough, Kemp’s crew called fewer penalties than they usually do last year, as it was the first time since becoming a head referee that Kemp had called under 200 penalties in a year; he finished with 192 penalties. So far this year, Kemp is up to 30 called penalties, placing his crew fourth in the league through two games. In short, expect a lot of yellow this week.
Kemp has also established himself as someone who frequently favors the home team. He has never finished a season with more penalties called on the home team than the road team, and in the last two years (a total of 34 games) he has called more penalties on the home team just six times. The discrepancy between teams is usually not a staggering amount, as there is a 55/45 split in penalties called for Kemp’s career, but there is a very consistent trend of the home team being the less penalized team when Kemp is calling the game.
On the bright side, this trend hasn’t really translated to a sizable advantage in the home team’s favor. Since becoming a head referee, the home team has a 42-40 record in games called by Kemp. Notably, the road team has won both games called by Kemp this year despite receiving five more penalties than the home team in both games.
Kemp doesn’t really have any type of penalty that he calls that often. All officiating crews have offensive holding and false start as their two most popular penalty calls, but Kemp was around the average mark in calling both penalties last year and in years prior. His crew has had years where they’ve been very strict on pass interference - leading the league in that call in 2020 - but also years where they’ve rarely called it; for example, only two crews called pass interference less than Kemp’s last year.
If there’s any trend to be found, it’s a fairly weak one that sees Kemp focusing on defenses not getting a head start. His crew has been in the top 10 in offsides calls four of his five years as a head referee, leading the league twice; but the one year outside of the top 10, Kemp’s crew called offsides the least of any crew. Kemp has similarly been inside the top 10 every year in neutral zone infractions, though the actual frequency of calling it has varied over the years. It’s not much of a trend, but it’s the closest thing to a penalty-specific pattern for his crew.
Since becoming a head referee, Kemp has only called three Cowboys games, all of them coming with Mike McCarthy as the head coach. The Cowboys are 2-1 under Kemp, with the lone loss being the team’s first playoff loss to the 49ers in the playoffs following the 2021 season. Of course, that was the game that featured the infamous scramble-slide from Dak Prescott, where Kemp’s crew didn’t get the ball set in time for a spike before time expired.
The other two games Kemp has called, though, featured division wins for the Cowboys. During the 2021 regular season, Dallas beat Washington on the road and, in a Kemp rarity, received just as many penalties as their opponent. Last year, Kemp also called the Cowboys’ Christmas Eve win over the Gardner Minshew-led Eagles. That game also featured an anomaly, as the home Cowboys were the more penalized team, though they still only drew four penalties.
Kemp and his crew are known to be trigger happy with the flags, and the home team usually gets the benefit of the doubt. However, that trend hasn’t seemed to apply to the Cowboys, who have been as penalized or more so than the opponent regardless of where they play. Still, the Cowboys are 2-1 under Kemp and undefeated in the regular season. Expect a whole lot of flags this week, but it’s not likely to affect the outcome between two very different teams.