Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

07 Nov 2006

The Hidden Effects of Pass Interference Penalties

There are several things that NFL scribes and fans refer to when attempting to determine how underrated a player is. For a player like Steelers DT Casey Hampton, it’s his skills in occupying offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage and allowing the linebackers behind him to make plays. Chargers FB Lorenzo Neal plows the holes to keep halfbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner going, while Bears LB Lance Briggs is a machine in coverage, shutting down tight ends and even wide receivers coming over the middle.

It’s hard, though, for a skill position player to be underrated solely because of the sheer amount of coverage they get. Fantasy football players could tell you more about Bertrand Berrian than they could about Vince Wilfork, even if the latter plays a much more important role in winning football games. Highlights focus on diving catches and long runs, and they should -- they’re exciting! That being said, there’s a NFL quarterback whose play is underrated by even fanatical followers of the L who simply look at his statistics and watch his highlights Monday morning. That man, shockingly, is Brett Favre. And even more so than Favre, his top WR, Donald Driver, remains remarkably underrated for a skill he and, perhaps, only a few others in the NFL share; the ability to draw pass interference.

As you may be aware, the NFL does not award the yardage gained from a pass interference penalty to the individual statistics of a quarterback and his wide receiver, which seems quite unfair when you consider the letter of the law: a interference penalty is only supposed to be called when a defensive player commits "...any player movement beyond the line of scrimmage significantly [hindering] the progress of an eligible player of such player’s opportunity to catch the ball". In English, he prevents a player from catching a ball he had the opportunity to catch.

Now, of course, not every pass would result in a catch if the interference penalty was not committed; on the other hand, though, most NFL receivers catch anywhere from 55-65% of the balls thrown in their general direction. Is it fairer, then, to award them none of credit for the plays they are prevented from making, or all of it? I’m inclined to think the latter.

With that in mind, I used Football Outsiders’ play-by-play database from the last several years to look at every pass from 2002-2005 that resulted in a pass interference penalty against the defense that was accepted by the offense -- an event that occurred 820 times in those four seasons. I wanted to see if there were certain players or a certain subset or archetype of player (tall guys, fast guys, good or bad route-runners, etc) that recorded more pass interference penalties than the norm. What I found was that for a majority of players, pass interference penalties were generally dependent upon how many devious stares they got in their direction. Take Plaxico Burress, for example:

Year Throws PI Drawn (Rank)

2002 144 7 (1)
2003 123 3 (25)
2004 60 1 (64)
2005 166 6 (2)

Just to note, I sorted guys who had the same number of penalties drawn by the yards they recorded on those non-catches to determine their rank.

As you can see with Burress, when he was getting a lot of throws towards him, more of them resulted in pass interference penalties. Burress is actually tied for the lead in pass interference penalties against him for the four-year stretch with 17 -- his yardage, though, pales in comparison to the leader.

Most players had patterns like that -- one year, they’d be in the top ten, the next, they’d be in the late seventies. To give another example, Peerless Price was in the top five in 2002 and 2003, when he was thrown 289 passes; in 2004 and 2005, when he was thrown 106, he didn’t record a single pass interference against him.

There were several players, though, whose numbers really stood out against the pack. As I mentioned previously, the Brett Favre to Donald Driver connection has been quite strong: Driver’s 17 pass interference penalties drawn are tied for the lead when it comes to wide receivers over that timeframe, while Favre’s 36 are in first for quarterbacks. What makes the gap even more dramatic, though, is that their pass interference penalties draw so many yards. Driver’s 17 penalties have drawn nearly 27 yards per catch, fourth over the timeframe -- the three receivers who have averaged more (David Patten, Torry Holt, and DJ Hackett) have done so with only half as many throws. With this combination, Driver’s 443 yards gained through pass interference penalties blows away the number two receiver, Patten, who has only 311. If you apply the yardage gained in penalties to Driver’s numbers, the difference is quite dramatic:

Year Rec Atts Yds
2002 70 113 1064
2003 52 87 621
2004 84 138 1208
2005 86 146 1221

2002 (adj.) 74 113 1201
2003 (adj.) 55 87 682
2004 (adj.) 88 138 1278
2005 (adj.) 92 146 1396

While Driver does also draw more penalties as he’s thrown to more, he consistently draws some even in leaner times -- when he was hurt in 2003, for example, he still drew a pass interference penalty about every 28 throws. Last year, Driver had plays of 10, 18, 33, 36, 37 and 41 yards wiped off his record by pass interference penalties; 13% of the yardage he gained all season, a whopping 175 yards.

While Driver clearly has shown a propensity for being interfered with, he doesn’t dominate his position like Favre does. Favre’s 36 completions are four more than the next highest quarterback, Peyton Manning, and his 729 yards blow away Matt Hasselbeck’s 523 yards for second place. Last year, Favre had 276 yards taken away by penalties, which would be nearly 7% of his season total if included in his numbers.

Speaking of the Packers, the other player who stood out as the one who draws pass interference penalties at a rate beyond that commensurate with his attempts is Koren Robinson. Robinson has racked up 13 pass interference penalties drawn in four years despite missing chunks of the 2004 and 2005 seasons, good enough to be tied for fourth in the league over that timeframe.

Strangely enough, Driver hasn’t drawn a single pass interference penalty this season, while Favre hadn’t drawn a single one until last week’s game against the Cardinals, when he managed to earn three penalties. The change may have something to do with the coaching change the Packers underwent, and may raise a point about scheme having something to do with drawing pass interference penalties.

Whether drawing pass interference penalties is an actual skill or something entirely subject to usage is still up for debate, two things are clear. One, if anyone really does have the skill to draw them, it’s reasonably rare; Two, quarterbacks and especially wide receivers are losing a pretty significant chunk of their performance that they could be applying come contract time.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 07 Nov 2006