23 Jan 2004
by Michael David Smith
One part of last week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback caught my attention even more than the picture of the Panthers' beautiful cheer-babe. It was when Gregg Easterbrook wrote that, "Mainly the NFL playoffs are a fantastic event, but there's a long-standing opinion among purists that the farther the playoffs advance, the more the officials seem to allow fouls."
Easterbrook's comments on the officiating were followed by an editor's note responding that, "According to Director of Officiating Mike Pereira, playoff-caliber teams tend to be more disciplined and therefore less penalized."
My first thought was, it's a credit to the NFL that it allows Easterbrook to question the officiating on the league's official site. Can you imagine David Stern allowing Mark Cuban to vent about the refs on NBA.com?
My second thought was that Pereira ought to read the column I wrote on Football Outsiders last month, in which I showed that playoff teams are actually penalized just as often as non-playoff teams.
And my third thought was that I wanted to see if Easterbrook was correct. Here's what I discovered:
The 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2003 averaged 6.3 penalties for 51.6 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams have averaged 4.6 penalties for 34.5 yards a game. That's a drop of 27% in terms of penalties per game and 33% in terms of yards per game. Yes, we're seeing about one-fourth fewer penalties a game, and one-third fewer penalty yards a game. Your eyes do not deceive you, Mr. Easterbrook.
In fact, of the 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2003, only one, the Ravens, actually saw a rise in their penalty yards per game from the regular season to the playoffs. The Ravens averaged 60.6 penalty yards a game during the regular season and had 70 penalty yards in their one playoff game against the Titans. (Thank you very much, Orlando Brown.)
But could this just be a statistical anomaly this year? Could it be that the 12 teams that made the playoffs this year became more focused when the games got more important? No. This is a trend.
The 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2002 averaged 6.4 penalties for 53 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams averaged 5.4 penalties for 53.3 yards a game. So penalties were down by 16%, but penalty yards were actually up, by less than one percent. That slight increase in yards can be attributed to the Tennessee-Oakland penalty-fest, which saw a total of 21 penalties for 187 yards in just one game.
The 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2001 averaged 5.5 penalties for 45.8 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams averaged 4.1 penalties for 31.4 yards a game. That's a drop of 25% in terms of penalties per game and 31% in terms of yards per game. Once again, we see about one-fourth fewer penalties a game, and one-third fewer penalty yards a game.
I don't want to belabor the point, but let's look at one more year. The 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2000 averaged 6.5 penalties for 54.8 yards a game during the regular season. In the playoffs, those same teams averaged 5.8 penalties for 44.7 yards a game. That's a drop of 11% in terms of penalties per game and 18% in terms of yards per game.
There's no question that during the past four seasons, the officials have called fewer penalties during the postseason than they did during the regular season, even when we examine only playoff teams. Now, it's possible that there is a completely legitimate reason for fewer penalties being called in the playoffs than in the regular season. I'm certainly not suggesting that the officials should call a bunch of penalties in the Super Bowl to make things even. Maybe teams are more cautious and really do commit fewer penalties. But it's clear that fewer flags fly during the playoffs than during the regular season, and the league's officials ought to give us an explanation.
These tables show the penalties and penalty yards per game for all 48 playoff teams over the last four seasons, both in the regular season and the playoffs. 2003 numbers, of course, do not include the Super Bowl: