23 Dec 2003
by Michael David Smith
It defies everything every coach and commentator says, not to mention common sense. I can't explain it, but I can't ignore it either. There is no correlation between a team's penalties and its won-loss record.
This phenomenon was first noted in The Hidden Game of Football. But its authors, Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn, while uncovering the surprising piece of information, also made a key error in describing it. The authors wrote, "[Penalties] don't make a whole lot of difference. Over the course of a season, they tend to even out. For every drive-killing holding penalty, there's an interference call that keeps a drive going."
The truth is, penalties don't even out. Looking at the whole of last season, it's clear that some teams were consistently penalized more than other teams. The difference is equal to a few hundred yards, which is also the difference between the best teams and the worst teams in punt return yardage. Would we say punt returns don't really matter and even out over the course of the season? Certainly not.
But what's clear is that the teams penalized less often than their opponents were no better than the teams penalized more often than their opponents. Want proof? Read the chart, or just consider this: The Arizona Cardinals were the best team in the league last year in terms of penalties. If you need more proof of the mathematical type, there was a (very small) negative correlation coefficient between wins and net penalties (-.10) as well as wins and net penalty yards (-.08) in 2002.
And what is perhaps even more surprising is the discovery that the majority of Super Bowl champions have actually been more prone to penalties than their opponents in the regular season. What is going on here? I'm not sure, but I have a few theories:
When discussing penalties, it's important to keep in mind that, contrary to what coaches and commentators tend to say, penalties shouldn't really be called "mistakes." When an offensive lineman holds Michael Strahan, he didn't do it on accident. He did it on purpose because he knew Michael Strahan would beat him otherwise. He just hoped he wouldn't get caught. Ditto a defensive back interfering with Randy Moss. Yes, there are some penalties that are mistakes -- offsides, false starts, delays of game -- but even those would seem to happen more often against better opponents. I'd expect a tackle to be called for illegal procedure much more often against Jason Taylor than against some practice squad scrub. So when you see that the Giants' opponents were flagged for more penalties than any other team's opponents last year, don't assume the Giants just got lucky. The Giants certainly played a role in it. Also keep in mind that NFL officiating crews are not all created equal. Some crews call more penalties than others. But even if one team was stuck with a flag-happy crew more times than another team, it would make no difference in the net penalties shown here.
Here are the teams ranked from the 2002 regular season in order of their net penalty yards:
Out of the 37 Super Bowl champions, 23 actually had more penalty yards than their opponents. Here's a list of the past 20 Super Bowl champions with penalties listed for the teams and their opponents:
(Please note that the '87 Redskins' numbers include the three games with replacement players.)
So does this data say that penalties don't matter? It most certainly does not. We've all seen penalties that had game-altering implications. But penalties are probably less important than coaches and commentators would have us believe. And this probably deserves further study.