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Penalty Rates Are Down In The Playoffs

Did notice the lack of yellow flags this weekend? In the first round of the 2013 playoffs, just 31 penalties were called over four games, a 7.75 per-game average. That’s the lowest per-game average from any week this season, and the 63.25 penalty yards assessed also represent the floor on a per-game basis for any week in 2013.

In 2012, Wild Card weekend was also the least penalized weekend of that season, on both a penalty and penalty yards basis. That is, until the later rounds of the playoffs. As it turns out, these examples are part of a broader trend in the NFL for over a decade.

The graph below shows the average number of penalties called per team game in both the regular season and the postseason going back to 2000. Obviously for 2013, we’re looking at just four games, but for each other postseason, I included all 11 games.


You get a pretty similar picture if you examine the question on a penalty yards basis:

So what’s going on? One interpretation would be that playoff teams are the best teams, and the best teams tend to commit fewer penalties. That would make some sense, but it’s not really the case. From 2000 to 2013, an average of 12.5 penalties per regular season game and 10.5 per game in the playoffs were called.1 Based on the teams that made the playoffs and the number of games they played, we would have expected 12.2 penalties per playoff game.

So while playoff teams are probably a little bit better at avoiding penalties, that only accounts for about 2% of the 16% decrease we see in penalties in the playoffs. And the difference is even smaller when looking at penalty yards (average during the regular season = 103.4; expected average based on playoff teams in the postseason = 101.7; actual postseason average = 84.9). Last year’s Ravens team was the 2nd most penalized team in the NFL and had the most penalty yards assessed against them in the regular season. After averaging 7.6 penalties and 70 penalty yards per game during the regular season, those averages dropped to 4 and 52 during the playoffs.

If you heard that violent crime was down 16%, you’d probably consider that to be a very good thing. If you dug into the numbers, you might discover that that stat just cited was based on violent criminal convictions, not reported instances of violent crime from victims. That might not bother you very much: after all, you’d assume that we were comparing apples to apples, and if the number of convictions was down from Time X to Time Y, the number of actual instances of crime was probably down over that period, too. If you heard that arrests were also down 16%, you might just think that less violent crime had been committed. Perhaps police enforcement is up, or poverty is down, or certain new policies are achieving their intended effects.

But then you learn that the mayor found the city’s violent crime rate to be a black eye on the city’s reputation. And then you think: just maybe he was so desperate to reduce the violent crime numbers that he told the chief of police that the city should make fewer arrests. After all, fewer arrests results in fewer convictions, and if there were fewer convictions, he could report that violent crime was down. Of course, that wouldn’t be the case at all: saying violent crime is down doesn’t mean that life is better. It just might mean that fewer criminals are being held accountable for their actions. And, in fact, that might mean violent crime was actually on the rise: criminals believing they won’t be punished are more likely to commit crimes. And you might not think that’s a good thing at all.

Apologies for the tangent. What was I talking about again?

  1. Note that I’m simply taking an average of the averages, so this puts 2013 on par with every other year even though there have only been 4 playoff games. Similarly, this puts 2000 and 2001 on par with the other years even though there was one fewer team. []

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • buzz January 8, 2014, 12:37 am

    Interesting but not completely surprising given the lack of calls refs make at the end of games. I wonder if the offenses or defenses are getting away with more. I am guessing holding by both the offensive line and defensive backs are the biggest declines since they are the most subjective and I am guessing they are actually occurring more often as players are desperate to make plays (even if they are better at not committing penalties in the regular season). Interestingly the two most penalized teams (net) left in the playoffs are the top two seeds with Seattle far and away #1 followed by Denver. In theory these reduced penalties should help them the most.

    For example, Seattle loses about 20 yards net to their opponents per game. If that amount is reduced by 16% they will gain 3 yards which may not sound like a ton but on the other end of the spectrum they could play the Colts who gain about 26 yards per game net. If they lost 16% of those yards that would be about 4 yards for a total net gain of 7 yards to Seattle. Since it is generally accepted that a point is worth around 12 yards we can say that Seattle is getting almost half a point advantage from these change in calls. For comparison purposes losing a star player like Gronkowski or Freeney in the super bowl only moved the Vegas point spreads by about half a point.

  • James January 8, 2014, 10:32 am
  • Jerry January 8, 2014, 7:04 pm

    Could it be that the crews who call fewer penalties are the ones who get the higher ratings, and therefore the playoff assignments?

  • Richie January 8, 2014, 7:43 pm

    . What was I talking about again?

    I wonder what football would look like if all holding infractions were actually called as penalties. (Imagine some electronic system that could identify holds with 100% accuracy.)

    Would QB’s ever have more than about 1 second in the pocket? Would DB’s be able to defend at all?

  • Michael Terry January 8, 2014, 10:42 pm

    Or you could have GIF’d the play where one of James Jones’s arms was slapped down by Parrish Cox (who? yeah, that’s why his technique was less than legal) well before the ball arrived on a deep pass on 3rd down on the Packer’s first drive of the second half. Receivers generally needing two hands to catch a pass, and the ball being perfectly on target, it almost certainly cost a reception and a score. Obviously, that play hasn’t been as popular to cite since it doesn’t support the public narrative.

  • prowrestlingisstrong January 9, 2014, 12:24 am

    With fantasy football over refs are pressured less by the league to keep scoring and offensive production at a high level. This is why high regular season passing yards correlate very low to post season success. In the playoffs defense and the ability to grind out close games is what wins. This makes the sexy passing offense a detriment in the playoffs. All those blowouts over bottom feeders dont help prepare you for the style played in the playoffs. Look at the niners packers game last week. It looked like a game from 1995.

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