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Not opposed to occasional acts of piracy.

Greg Schiano made an interesting comment the other day which went against conventional wisdom.

“It’s a fine line between being a physical, aggressive football team and getting a flag. You gotta be careful. I don’t ever want to be the least penalized team in the league, because I don’t think you’re trying hard enough then…. But I certainly do want to be in the top 10. That’s where you should be. You should be — five through 10 is a great place to be as a penalized team.”

Schiano’s statement makes some sense. Not all penalties are the same, even though they’re usually grouped that way. False starts, late hit penalties, excessive celebrations, delays of game and “12 men on the field” are examples of penalties that drive every coach crazy. When we think of undisciplined teams or stupid penalties, these are the ones we envision. Other penalties, like offensive holding or defensive pass interference might not be bad at all, and might be symptomatic of rational thinking. If a lineman believes the likelihood of his man getting to the quarterback is higher than the likelihood of him getting called for a penalty if he holds the defender, then holding may be the wise course of action. Similarly, a defensive back that tries to prevent a touchdown on pass interference isn’t necessarily committing a bad penalty. Intentional grounding is rarely a penalty that really hurts the team, as it’s usually called when for the quarterback, the alternative is usually a sack (or worse).

Off-sides, roughing the passer or certain penalties associated with hits (defensive receivers, leading with the helmet, etc.) are correlated with aggressive behavior. They should be minimized, of course, but I would not shocked to discover that they were generally correlated with positive play. The point being there are many types of penalties, an issue I’ve touched on before.

Still, I performed a regression analysis on penalties and team success. The results show that fewer penalties appears to be very slightly correlated with winning. A team with 80 penalties on the season would be expected to win 52.4% of its games, while a team with 100 penalties on the year would be projected to win 50.1% of its games. To jump just one win in a 16-game season, the results here indicate that a team would need to commit 54 fewer penalties. That’s absurd on its face,, which means that there is not necessarily a causal relationship between penalties and winning. Which is exactly what Schiano implied.

But we could break it down even further. I grouped all teams since 1990 into penalty ranges. As you can see, there does seem to be a small relationship between fewer penalties and winning:

57 to 74330.535
75 to 901550.516
91 to 1092780.501
110 to 1291740.487

Of course, this doesn’t go against what Schiano said. He didn’t want to be below average in penalties, just not number one. And I’m sure he’d want to be number one at avoiding stupid penalties. But I agree with him that the goal of a team shouldn’t be to avoid penalties at all costs, just like a team shouldn’t try to avoid interceptions at all costs. The goal is simply to win, and there being too aggressive isn’t the only option that carries with it a tradeoff — a team that isn’t aggressive enough is also unlikely to win championships.

[Updated: I realized that I might as well post the results of the teams to lead the league in fewest penalties and the eventual Super Bowl champs. The first table shows the team with the fewest penalties each season and how they performed in the post-season. On average, these teams won 9 games. The second table shows all Super Bowl champions since 1990 and where they ranked in penalties; on average, they ranked 12th in penalties.]


  • Andrew

    That is surprisingly honest and candid for an NFL head coach. Usually you don’t get to hear things like that, things that could be misconstrued or taken out of context and leave them looking bad. Good on you, Mr. Schiano

  • Richie

    I assume there is no database that breaks down the penalties by type? It would be cool to see the analysis with penalties divided into either “dumb” (false starts, 12-men, etc.) or “aggressive” (holding, PI, etc.).

    Sometimes it amazes me that the NFL has been around for 90+ years, and how much lack of statistical detail there is. It really doesn’t make much sense to just give a stat: “8 penalties for 60 yards”. That doesn’t give us much information.

    On a related note, the other day I read something about sacks. I was thinking that it might not even tell us that much to lump “half sacks” and “sacks” together.

    For instance, if there are two players who finish a game with 1.0 sacks, but one guy did it with a solo sack and the other guy did it with 2 half-sacks, that 1.0 doesn’t really tell the same story. I might argue that the guy who had 2 half-sacks actually had a better game. There were 2 times that he got to the QB before he got rid of the ball. Why should he be “penalized” because somebody else from his team also got there at the same time? But then, not all half sacks are even the same. Some times there are plays where 2 guys just hit the QB at the same time – had one of the guys not been there, the other guy still would have gotten the sack. But other times there might be a guy who wraps the QB, but isn’t getting him down, and the 2nd guy comes in to finish the job.

    • Chase Stuart


      Let’s say we had that data. How would you group the following penalties?

      False Start
      Offensive Holding
      Defensive Offside
      Defensive Pass Interference
      Defensive Holding
      Unnecessary Roughness
      Delay of Game
      Illegal Block Above the Waist
      Face Mask
      Illegal Contact
      Roughing the Passer
      Offensive Pass Interference
      Personal Foul
      Illegal Use of Hands
      Illegal Formation
      Neutral Zone
      Unsportsmanlike Conduct
      12 On-field
      Intentional Grounding
      Illegal Shift
      Ineligible Downfield Pass
      Illegal Motion
      Offside on Free Kick
      Ineligible Downfield Kick
      Illegal Substitution
      Chop Block
      Running Into the Kicker
      Illegal Touch Pass
      Illegal Touch Kick
      Illegal Forward Pass
      Offensive Offside
      Low Block
      Fair Catch Interference
      Illegal Crackback
      Horse Collar
      Roughing the Kicker
      Player Out of Bounds on Punt
      Interference with Opportunity to Catch
      Illegal Procedure
      Invalid Fair Catch Signal
      Illegal Bat
      Kickoff Out of Bounds
      Illegal Receiver Pass
      Illegal Kick

      • Andrew

        I think a lot of whether a penalty was smart or stupid is circumstantial and/or subjective. What if you held to prevent a sack that would only lose you four yards? One could argue that that is a stupid penalty because you lose more yardage if caught. On the other hand, one could also argue that there is some inherent value in preventing hits to your QB, and thus the penalty was smart. To make a long post short, I don’t know that you can break down penalties into smart and dumb on anything other than a “that’s what I believe” sort of basis.

        • Richie

          I think a lot of whether a penalty was smart or stupid is circumstantial and/or subjective. What if you held to prevent a sack that would only lose you four yards? One could argue that that is a stupid penalty because you lose more yardage if caught. On the other hand, one could also argue that there is some inherent value in preventing hits to your QB, and thus the penalty was smart. To make a long post short, I don’t know that you can break down penalties into smart and dumb on anything other than a “that’s what I believe” sort of basis.

          I agree. Much is subjective, and knowing the intent of the player would be the only way to define things.

          But I think there are some penalties that ONLY happen due to mental errors, that can almost never be considered a smart thing (false start, 12-men on the field, delay of game, etc.). I would say there is a very tiny percentage (if any) chance that these sorts of penalties could be advantageous in any way.

          However, sometimes an offensive holding is just a bad play, but many times it’s done because the player has lost the battle, and it’s worth it to him to hold, and protect his QB and/or get away with the hold and turn a loss into a win. Also, sometimes late hits are just stupid, but there is also a certain intimidation factor that might come into play (just ask Gregg Williams), so sometimes they could be smart.

          So I think it might be informative to divide penalties into the categories of “never beneficial” and “sometimes beneficial”.

          • Danish

            Agreed, Richie. If you isolate the penalties that have no upside for the commiter of the foul, then you may have some real information.

      • Richie

        Are Neutral Zone and Defensive Offside different penalties? (I’m not ENTIRELY sure what exactly some of these penalties are.)

        If I was going to drop all penalties into one of 2 buckets, I think I would do this. It might also be worth considering dividing the penalties between defense, offense and special teams.

        False Start dumb
        Offensive Holding aggressive
        Defensive Offside dumb
        Defensive Pass Interference aggressive
        Defensive Holding aggressive
        Unnecessary Roughness dumb
        Delay of Game dumb
        Illegal Block Above the Waist dumb
        Face Mask aggressive
        Illegal Contact aggressive
        Roughing the Passer aggressive
        Offensive Pass Interference aggressive
        Encroachment aggressive
        Personal Foul aggressive
        Illegal Use of Hands aggressive
        Illegal Formation dumb
        Neutral Zone dumb
        Unsportsmanlike Conduct dumb
        12 On-field dumb
        Intentional Grounding aggressive
        Illegal Shift dumb
        Ineligible Downfield Pass dumb
        Illegal Motion dumb
        Offside on Free Kick dumb
        Ineligible Downfield Kick dumb
        Tripping aggressive
        Illegal Substitution dumb
        Taunting dumb
        Chop Block dumb
        Running Into the Kicker aggressive
        Illegal Touch Pass aggressive
        Illegal Touch Kick aggressive
        Illegal Forward Pass dumb
        Offensive Offside dumb
        Low Block aggressive
        Fair Catch Interference dumb
        Illegal Crackback aggressive
        Horse Collar aggressive
        Roughing the Kicker aggressive
        Player Out of Bounds on Punt aggressive
        Clipping aggressive
        Interference with Opportunity to Catch dumb
        Illegal Procedure dumb
        Disqualification dumb
        Leverage aggressive
        Invalid Fair Catch Signal dumb
        Illegal Bat dumb
        Kickoff Out of Bounds dumb
        Illegal Receiver Pass dumb
        Illegal Kick dumb

  • Danish

    I think what we are REALLY looking for is division between penalties that corrolates with losing and penalties that don’t (or maybe even corrolate with winning).

    Holding, for example, I think wont corrolate at all – half the time it’s because the OL is overmatched and half the time he’s being smart.

    False start is a clear sign of a bad team/OL/player: He’s tired/unfocused/overmatched by opposition. No real upside, so it’s never a “smart” penalty.

    DPI on the other hand: While sometimes a sign of bad tecnique, is predicated on the defender being “there” which is certainly a sign of a player doing his job well.

    Am I making sense?

    DPI on the other hand will corrolate with winning