07 Aug 2007
by Doug Farrar
On the afternoon of November 14, 2004, the Seattle Seahawks were driving downfield against the St. Louis Rams in an important divisional contest. Down 20-12 with 13:49 remaining in the game, Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was ready to take the snap from center Robbie Tobeck on the Seattle 40-yard line when referee Bill Leavy blew the play dead. Left guard Steve Hutchinson jumped early and was flagged for a false start, which pushed the Seahawks back five yards into a first-and-15 situation. Seattle couldn't convert this drive into points -- Shaun Alexander fumbled four plays later, and the Seahawks lost the game, 23-12 -- but that's not why Hutchinson's penalty was significant.
It was significant because Hutchinson has started every game for the Seahawks (2004-05) and Vikings (2006) since that Week 10 loss in 2004, and he hasn't been called for a regular-season penalty since. That's zero flags in 39 games for a player who's been in on just about every offensive play. His one false start in the 2005 NFC Championship Game aside, it's still a remarkable achievement.
Penalties are part of life for every (other) NFL offensive lineman. When analyzing their effectiveness, high numbers of holding and false start penalties seem to indicate two things: An inability to consistently block the men in front of them, and/or a lack of situational discipline. I recently read an ESPN.com article in which an â€œOverrated/Underrated listâ€? of offensive linemen was based primarily on two factors: Holding penalties and sacks allowed. For this article, I'm going to include false starts, because linemen are debited as much, if not more, for false starts than for holds, especially in the public eye.
Ask yourself: What ELSE is Luke Petitgout famous for?
While a "sack allowed" might be subjective and based on the eye of the beholder, penalties are supposedly objective, in that their value is based on no external factors. A false start is a false start, and so on, and even the occasional blown call shouldn't skew the data. The problem with that concept is that the number of penalties called from crew to crew, and from season to season, fluctuates wildly.
In Pro Football Prospectus 2007, I wrote about the decisions made by the NFL Competition Committee and how they affected last year's play on the field. A primary point of focus for the Committee in the 2006 preseason was the frequency of the two most called penalties every year (with at least a 2-1 margin over any others): holding and false starts. In both cases, the concern was that officials were making too many calls. As a result, both decreased in 2006 -- holding calls were down 33 percent (868 to 570) and false starts down 15 percent (849 to 723).
There was an enormous variance from crew to crew, especially in holding penalties. In 2006, the 44 holds called by Walt Anderson's bunch were four times more than Bill Carollo's 11. The swing wasn't quite as drastic in 2005, but from Larry Nemmers' 75 down to Tony Corrente's 34, if we're rating players by their penalties, we need to take a more comprehensive look at the conditions under which those penalties are called.
So, as any writer with FO's methods drilled into his head would do, I established a league average for the 2006 season in holds and false starts, which allowed me to place a value on the calls from each crew:
Average Calls per Game: 2.22
Average Calls per Crew per Season: 33.39
Average Calls per Game: 2.82
Average Calls per Crew per Season: 42.36
Once I had a baseline, the next step was to integrate these Adjusted Penalty Rates into the FO penalty database (which is based on official play-by-play data) and re-run the numbers for the prime offenders in both holding and false starts among offensive linemen. Teams listed are the players' 2006 teams.
A few notes about this list: Snee's APR is so high because he's the only offensive lineman on our list called for holding by Bill Carollo's crew in 2006. Of Carollo's 11 holds, four were called on special teams plays, three on receivers, and one on a tight end. When you get flagged by a crew that called three holds on offensive linemen all year, it's safe to say that either the NFL spoke to the officials before your game, or you must have been pretty active in the extracurricular department. Snee also had a hold called by Walt Coleman, who called the second fewest holds in the league. And does anyone else find it amusing that he's Tom "Mr. Discipline" Coughlin's son-in-law? Snee probably doesn't have a lot to laugh about at family dinners. Browns tackle Kevin Shaffer led the league in holding penalties with seven, but he was flagged by six different crews, and only one (Mike Carey's) had an APR above 1.0.
While 2006 was Andrew Whitworth's rookie year, Bob Whitfield retired after the 2006 season and a 15-year career. Robert Gallery continues his journey to legend as one of the most disappointing high draft picks in recent memory. We'll see what a new, supposed emphasis on offensive position coaching, and a zone blocking scheme, does for that Oakland line.
No, the addition of Walter Jones is not a typo. The league's best lineman in 2005 (and possibly in some seasons before) struggled with injuries and line inconsistency and had his worst season to date in 2006. And isn't it a shame that Langston Walker signed with the Bills? This means that the Raiders could lose their tie for the league lead in holds (25) with Minnesota. Speaking of Minnesota ... between Bryant McKinnie and Marcus Johnson, no wonder Hutchinson wasn't called for any penalties last year. Who had time to look at the guards? Reggie Wells' Adjusted Hold Rate was a product of the fact that four of his penalties were called by three of the bottom four crews in APR, including two by low man Walt Anderson.
Now, the false starts:
|2006 FALSE STARTS|
Note: We're talking about offensive linemen specifically, which is why Jason Witten's six (APR: 6.61), and Frank Gore's five (APR: 5.72), false starts are not included. And no, there's no Luke Petitgout here. His 10 false starts in 2005 (which didn't even lead the league -- thank you, Leonard Davis) fell to three in 2006.
An Oakland player at the top of this list? Gosh. Spencer started at center for the first time in the last half of the season on Seattle's depleted line. He could be a good one in time, but those numbers are no surprise. Steussie begins his second season as a member of the Rams' line in 2007, which begs the very obvious question: Steussie and Barron? On the same line? Huh? Given the stellar reputation of the Indianapolis offensive line, some might be surprised to see Scott and the now-retired Glenn on this list, but it's easy to assume that Peyton Manning's detailed and time-consuming audibles have something to do with that.
Schneck's story is interesting for two reasons: he's the only long snapper on our list, and he made the Pro Bowl for the first time after the 2005 season. The follow-up season? Not so much. Both Leonard Davis and Derrick Dockery became members of the $49 Million Club in the off-season, with Davis going to Dallas and Dockery joining Langston Walker in Buffalo. If you're looking for a penalty upswing in 2007, Buffalo's a good place to start.
Lions left tackle Jeff Backus is one of two players on both lists. That's one of many reasons Detroit's line ranked dead last in Adjusted Line Yards and 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate last season. That Reggie Wells is the other player ... well, all I should have to say is that he's a member of Arizona's offensive line. That line actually had a decent upturn in the second half of the season, but three of Wells' five false starts also came in the season's second half. Two of those were called by Ron â€œI call more false starts before 9:00 AM than other crews do all dayâ€? Winter, which is the primary reason Wells' APR is so low. Not that he's a future Hall-of-Famer by any means, but based on the data in these two tables, Wells might have a point if he ever wants to complain that he has a bull's-eye on his uniform.
The data that goes into Adjusted Penalty Rate isn't 100 percent comprehensive; I'm considering how best to integrate factors like red zone and third-down penalties for both players and crews. A home/away adjustment for false starts would make sense. Different data could be more or less important for different penalties, and not every crew calls games for every team in every season. (In fact, with a small sample like penalties, it is probably best to judge players over multiple seasons.) However this is done, teams should start scouting the tendencies of officiating crews as they would any other â€œopponent.â€? Some do this already. Until penalties are called more consistently, statistical adjustment to an officiating crew might be the only way to get a real sense of which penalties matter the most, and who's really most responsible.
In part two of our series on Adjusted Penalty Rate, the focus will shift to pass interference and illegal contact. If you thought the variance on false starts and holds was wacky, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
32 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2007, 9:53am by stan