Penalties in the NFL

Are they really as consequential as sportscasters say they are?

Sportscasters all maintain that avoiding penalties is critical to a team’s success. This is especially true in the National Football League where there seem to be examples in every game. A defensive penalty may give the offense a first down. An offensive penalty may kill a drive. Fans go apoplectic when referees call a penalty that negatively affects their team. But, do the penalties make a difference overall in the standings?

Penalties in the Past

Since 1974, 84,987 penalties have been called for 707,800 yards in 6,912 NFL games. That’s about 12 penalties for 102 yards per two-team matchup, 8 yards per penalty. Those statistics reflect a mind boggling number of different players, coaches, referees, and rule changes over 27 seasons. The number of penalties and penalty yards per game from 1994 through 2020 (when there were 16 games per season) are shown in the following graph. There have been increases and decreases in penalties over those years but no significant trend.

83 different penalties have been called during those 27 seasons. For simplicity, the penalties were combined into nine categories:

  • Offensive line penalties, including delay of game, too many men on field, illegal substitution, illegal formation, illegal motion, false start, illegal procedure, illegal shift, offside, holding, illegal use of hands, tripping, ineligible downfield kick, and illegal player downfield.
  • Offensive pass penalties, including illegal forward pass, ineligible receiver, illegal receiver, illegal touch, offensive pass interference, and intentional grounding
  • Illegal block penalties, including block above the waist, low block, chop block, clipping, blindside block, crackback block, cut block, double-team block, peel-back block, and wedge
  • Defensive line penalties, including defensive delay of game, too many men on the field, offside, encroachment, neutral zone infraction, roughing the passer, and unnecessary roughness
  • Defensive pass penalties, including holding, pass interference, illegal contact, and interference with opportunity to catch
  • Tackling penalties, including face mask (5 and 15 yards), horse collar tackle, late hit, and lowering the head to initiate contact
  • Free ball penalties, batting and kicking loose ball
  • Penalties on kicks, including illegal kick, offside on kick, leaping, leverage, roughing or running into the kicker, short free kick, invalid fair-catch signal, illegal fair catch, fair-catch interference, kick-catch interference, kickoff out of bounds, and player out of bounds
  • Behavior penalties, including disqualification, excess celebration, palpably unfair acts, personal fouls, taunting, and unsportsmanlike conduct

This pie chart shows the prevalence of the penalty categories by their occurrence from 1994 to 2020 (by either counts or yards, the percentages are about the same). About 54% percent of penalties are committed mainly on the offense and 41% are committed mainly on the defense.

(You can read more about specific penalties at rookieroad.com, howtheyplay.com, and americanfootballdatabase.com.)

Penalties in the 2021 Season

In the first six weeks of the 2021 NFL season, there were 1,177 penalties called, averaging 12.7 penalties per game. This projects to about 3,335 penalties over the full 17-game season, about the same rate as for the last 27 years after adjusting for the additional game in 2021. The 10,355 yards of penalties so far in 2021 projects to 29,340 yards for the season, about the same as in the past. The 8.8 yards/penalty so far in 2021 isn’t too much more than the 8.3 yards/penalty of 1994-2020. All in all, this season’s penalty rate is comparable to the last three decades.

So far in the 2021 season, the Atlanta Falcons have committed the most penalties. The Philadelphia Eagles have been penalized for the most yardage and have given up the most first downs by penalty. In contrast, the New Orleans Saints have committed the fewest penalties for the fewest yards.

The Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers have a lot of penalties but don’t give up many first downs by penalty. The Tennessee Titans and New York Jets don’t have a lot of penalties but do give up quite a few first downs by penalty.

Do Penalties Matter?

The currently undefeated Arizona Cardinals have the best record in football and rank 11th in penalties. The currently winless Detroit Lions rank 12th. So, how important are penalties to a team’s overall winning percentage? Are all the instances we’ve seen in which a penalty kills a drive or gives an opponent a first down evidence of a pattern or just a misperception? Consider these graphs of win percentage versus the number of penalties, the amount of penalty yardage, and the number of first downs given up by penalty. In none of the three graphs is there any evidence of an association between penalties and win percentage.

There does not, therefore, appear to be any association between the penalties an NFL team commits and their overall winning percentage. Like missed field goals and dropped passes, they are one of many contributing factors to winning an individual game but are not a predictor of overall record. The Atlanta Falcons have a lot of penalties but that’s not their most important problem.

Data Source

Data for this analysis came from https://www.pro-football-reference.com/

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