How to Solve Rising Penalty Rates: Increase the Yardage

Interesting idea here from ESPN's Brian Burke: reduce penalties in the NFL by increasing the penalty for breaking the rules. The idea is that if we make holding a 15-yard penalty, or a loss of down, offensive linemen will hold less. Same thing goes for defensive penalties.

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39 comments, Last at 26 Nov 2019, 9:28pm

1 No

The biggest problem I have watching NFL games is that many of the penalties seem completely arbitrary - especially holding, pass interference, and unnecessary roughness. Increasing the severity of the penalties would only make the arbitrary swings of fortune worse.

The refs could call holding on almost every lineman on almost every play. Often the difference between a call and a no-call is simply whether the defensive lineman tries to pull or spin away in the right direction at the right time to make it visible. Offensive linemen aren't going to stop grabbing with their hands - the benefit of grabbing a defender to control him is too great (if you doubt this, look at videos of pre-1978 linemen trying to block pass rushers without using open hands).

20 The refs could call holding…

In reply to by Pottsville Mar…

The refs could call holding on almost every lineman on almost every play. Often the difference between a call and a no-call is simply whether the defensive lineman tries to pull or spin away in the right direction at the right time to make it visible.

"Showing the hold" by fighting through it is actually part of what makes it holding. If the defensive lineman doesn't try to pull or spin away, it's not holding.

2 I say we implement Brian's…

I say we implement Brian's solution, and beat him increasingly violently until he stops writing dumb things.

17 I think that's the premise…

I think that's the premise of the article.  There may be some inconsistency about penalties, but in most cases I think the penalty was actually committed.  Usually the inconsistency is when refs don't call something that should be a penalty.  So, if the penalty was more severe, players would try a little harder not to commit those penalties.  So there would be fewer possible times that referees could throw a flag.

27 98 yards?

That would require a quarterback able to throw a football 98 yards.

The longest DPI since 2000 (the best I can find data on) was a 66 yard DPI called on the Lions' Nevin Lawson on an Aaron Rodgers deep ball in 2016.

There's no guiness book of world records, but the longest thrown football on record is believed to have been an 80 yard throw by Vinny Testaverde in one of those Quarterback Challenge things from back in the 80s.

not that this changes your point.

If we eliminated DPI and OPI, would they cancel each other out?  I mean you'd still have holding, but if you schemed OPI right you could maybe spring someone...  


4 Fairly predictable consequence...

If you increase the yardage, teams will also focus more energy on how to draw penalties. Personally, I have much less problem with the number of penalties than I do the consistency of calls (like some basketball games are called loose, some are called tight, but as long as fouls are being called against the teams the same way I'm usually okay with the total number of foul calls). And honestly for the consistency to improve, I'd like to see fewer rule changes year-to-year.

5 The problem in statistics is…

The problem in statistics is the issue of cause and effect and just because you see a relationship, does not imply its the former or the latter.

Case in point - the nfl has more penalties. That could because A) teams are willing to gamble more because the penalties are far less severe in todays nfl(Bryan's choice), B) the refs are more liberal with how they are calling the penalties than in the past and team behavior is largely unchanged.

Depending on which it is could lead to the wrong solution. If its B, then increasing the yardage will not deter team behavior, or worse, it will lead to so much penalty avoidance that teams will go conservative by nature and everything will turn into a short pass or run up the middle.

7 The main issue is with the…

The main issue is with the consistency of calls rather than the size of penalties.

With "judgment call" penalties like holding or roughing the passer, there are limits to how much consistency you can get, especially when calls are being made by a person who only saw things once, in real-time, from a single angle, while also being responsible for watching several other things.

So I propose experimenting with refereeing entirely by video, with (nearly) every call in the hands of a huge crew of 20+ referees who are all off-site watching the footage of the game. The referees on the field have minimal responsibilities like starting & stopping play; the guys watching the videos are responsible for as much as possible.

During the play you have a bunch of video refs watching the play from different angles while others are standing by; as soon as one video-watching ref sees something that looks questionable or like a penalty or whatever they click on it and some of the standby refs are immediately shown slow-motion video of it from as many angles as possible. They make the final call, probably often about 10 seconds after the end of the play. (If you want yellow flags to fly, then they could add something like that where if the video ref thinks it's a penalty then they press a button and that tells the on-field ref to throw a flag, or else it could light up the scoreboard to indicate which team the possible penalty is on.)

This setup also allows for a bunch of redundancy - anything that 1 ref is doing could be done simultaneously by 2 or more different refs. For the refs watching in real-time, if any one of the refs clicks something as questionable then that is sufficient to bring in standby refs to watch it in slow motion. And for the refs trying to make the final call, if they aren't unanimous then the call could get passed on to a larger committee to decide.

This makes it much more feasible for refs to get more training & practice, and to be rigorous about approving refs to officiate in games. For example, the rules committee could clarify roughing the passer rules by getting video of 1000 plays where there was contact with the quarterback and deciding for each one whether it should be roughing the passer. Then they could share 100 with all the teams and the refs to that everyone can see what the standard is. Then refs could go through training where they watch 100s more of these plays, make a ruling, and get corrected if it doesn't match the view of the rules committee. Then refs could get tested (in a setup that closely mirrors what they actually do on gameday) by watching another set of 100 plays and making rulings on them, and only the refs who reliably agree with the rules committee would be allowed to make the final call in games on roughing the passer penalties.

11 I once met a guy at a Sci-Fi…

I once met a guy at a Sci-Fi convention about 25 years ago who claimed he had a better, simpler idea for a United Nations because his idea worked. It was so complicated, the plans were in a portfolio briefcase he carried. He actually cornered a friend in the host hotel's hallway while we were in a panel; we had to rescue him when we came out. We saw Mr UN later at the bottom of stairwell where he had trapped another unsuspecting victim. But we didn't know him, so it may still be going on. 

15 If you didn't want crazy…

If you didn't want crazy ideas for reforming the UN then you came to the wrong place.

I'm not claiming that my idea is simpler or that it would actually work. But maybe it would work. Basically it's what I got when I took basic concepts like "take quality control seriously" and "aim for consistency" and "slow motion video is awesome" and ran with them.


13  Turning the officiating (or…

 Turning the officiating (or just about anything worth doing well) over to a committee is not the path to a solution. When it fails (and it will), do you make the committee larger so that more eyeballs can catch what the others have missed?

Presently, the current refs, former refs in the broadcast booth, and the refs in the replay booth are unable to consistently identify pass interference, even after multiple replays, yet these are the game changing plays. This is the area the NFL needs to fix first.

14 It's not a committee, it's…

It's not a committee, it's extreme specialization.

For instance, maybe there's one guy whose entire job is to watch the LG during the play. He's watching the play, he sees something that looks like it might be illegal hands to the face, he presses a button and keeps watching the rest of the play to look for other possible fouls. If time wasn't an issue then he could go back after the play and rewatch the part that looked like it might be hands to the face in slow motion from every possible angle, but time is an issue so instead there is another video ref sitting around doing nothing until the first guy pressed the button - then at that moment he gets shown the slow motion every angle possible hands to the face and it's his call whether to flag it.

Obviously there will continue to be some mistakes and inconsistency, but hopefully a lot less than there are now and they can keep tinkering with the system to try to reduce the errors.

Part of the idea is to get rid of the concept of a "judgment call" in favor of consistency. Part of how that happens is by tracking where there are disagreements between refs and then looking for ways to reduce those disagreements and settle in on one consistent standard that reliably gets applied.

23 You could have your cloud of…

You could have your cloud of officials vote on whether or not a penalty occurred, with the severity of the penalty based on the level of agreement.

"The video refs have thrown a flag for holding. The vote was 7 to 3 that holding occurred, so this will be an 8 yard penalty instead of the full 10"

33 every call in the hands of a…

every call in the hands of a huge crew of 20+ referees who are all off-site

I love this. Each player on the field gets a ref assigned to them personally! Or better yet, have three refs watching each player, and if 2+ of them call a foul, then it's a foul!

Alternatively, we could have a massive data center with hundreds to thousands of refs on game day, each getting a random player from a random game for one play, then another random player from another random game for one play, and so on. Ultimate fairness! Then for the prime-time games, they all stay in the office and each player has dozens of pairs of eyes on him. The networks can show the stats of what % of refs think something is a foul on a given play!

As an American, I am going to demand the NFL spare no cost in this endeavor.

34 (If you want yellow flags to…

(If you want yellow flags to fly, then they could add something like that where if the video ref thinks it's a penalty then they press a button and that tells the on-field ref to throw a flag

Automated. Flag. Cannon.

8 Why stop there? Why not…

Why stop there? Why not permanently ban any player who commits a foul. Kick them right out of the league.

With that level of deterrent, no one would ever commit a penalty again.

Unless, of course, life is more complicated than that.

12 Can we mention real life…

Can we mention real life laws and penalties without running afoul of the "no politics" rules? Well, increased consequences for criminal acts has never shown a strong correlation with limiting the number of those acts. I know, sports are not real life, but they're also not perfect mathematical models.

9 It's really the dirty secret…

It's really the dirty secret of the NFL that it is almost impossible to officiate with absolute fairness and consistency. The rulebook is enormous, and there is way too much going on every play, at high speed. We should expect the game to be reffed in good faith, with overall competency. But the game is much more enjoyable as a spectator if you accept the imperfections, and roll with the punches.

With this in mind, what we don't need is the inconsistency exacerbated by more severe penalties.

10 I have a conflicting view…

I have a conflicting view about this. Of course I hate seeing a lot of penalties, but I like to see a game played cleanly. If there is holding on every play, call it. If there is PI on every play, so be it. Teams in theory should adjust.


My problem is, if there's massive variation in how crews call games, then teams will never adjust because its just a bomb of noise. Lots of evidence suggests crews and venues heavily sway the number of flags, leaving us with the conclusion that the refs have to do a better job. Pay them more and make them work full time. 

16 Look, if we just put all…

Look, if we just put all player in Tom Brady jerseys, no penalties will be called ever again.

\except maybe for grounding

19 Holding should be a bigger penalty - at least on pass plays

I do think it's logically a little odd that the rules give linemen an incentive to hold if otherwise not doing so results in a sack, when a holding penalty is a loss of yards without a loss of a down, while a sack loses you both.

Of course, most of the time, the action is a little too fast for linemen to really choose to hold, but I think the NFL should consider that a loss of down should be added to a hold on a pass play.

And if this results in fewer attempts at holding, and more sacks, well, as for me, my favorite play in all of football is the QB sack, so I'd be good.

Besides, I think Richie upthread makes a great point that with holding calls, it isn't inconsistency so much as under-calling that's the problem.

37 I never understood …

I never understood 'automatic 1st downs' as a rule.

If the penalty brings a team beyond the sticks, well of course it's a first down.

But a 10 yard penalty on 2nd and 20 should bring you to 2nd and 10. Or 3rd and 10. Not 1st and 10.

And I have been a football coach and referee. The enforcement of penalties is football is a incoherent mess. Coaches and even referees have a hard time enforcing the rules... so are the players and fans supposed to make sense of it?


39 There's probably some logic…

There's probably some logic behind the rules that is lost in history. Most rules are arbitrary because they're defined that way. Why four downs? Why 10 yards for a first down? Why do two let serves constitute a fault in tennis? 

But yes, enforcement is arbitrary, and that's the real problem.

25 Most of my favorite games

have when I reviewed afterward involved little to no holding calls on either the offense or the defense. Either by chance or by chance the officials focused on pre-snap penalties, pass interference and roughing/unsportsmanlike. That was it. And there were not many post game articles bemoaning the lack of holding calls by the crew save for MN fans complaining about either GB or the Badgers not being called for offensive holding. (For those not aware apparently there is a longstanding conspiracy by the Big10 to never call offensive holding against Wisconsin per fans from MN and Iowa.)

I know this is not practical as a policy because if you eliminated the penalties then of course things would spiral in the wrong direction. But sometimes a de facto approach can work. Just having the 'threat' of the call can act as discouraging the wrong action.

Just a thought.