Super Bowl XLIX's Insane Penalty Stats

by Aaron Schatz

I came across these stats while working on our big Super Bowl XLIX preview, and frankly, they were so extreme that I thought they deserved their own post.

As you may know, penalties are a big problem that both the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots had to overcome to make it to Sunday's big game. You may have seen a stat that the Seahawks led the NFL in penalties. This isn't quite true; they led the NFL with 130 accepted penalties, and the Patriots were tied for fourth with 120 accepted penalties. When you add in declined and offsetting flags, the Seahawks and Patriots actually were tied for seventh in the league at 142. (San Francisco and Tampa Bay tied for the league lead with 151 penalties once you add in declined and offsetting penalties.)

One reason the Seahawks have so few declined or offsetting penalties is that the penalty they commit most often is the false start. The Seahawks led the league with 29 offensive false starts during the regular season. No other team had more than 24. It's a much bigger problem than, to give one example, offensive holding. Not including special teams, the Seahawks had 15 offensive holding calls. The Patriots, by the way, had 19 false starts and 19 offensive holding penalties. Tampa Bay led the league with 28 offensive holding calls (not including special teams) while no other team had more than 23.

There's a lot of talk that the Seattle's physical defensive play leads to a lot of penalties, but clearly offensive penalties are a bigger problem for this team than defensive penalties. And by the way, the Patriots sort of imported the Seahawks' physical defensive play this season -- along with importing the constantly-penalized Brandon Browner -- and they also end up with more offensive penalties than defensive penalties. This table shows the number of penalties against each team, and you may notice that both teams rank higher in offensive penalties than defensive. In addition, special teams penalties are clearly a bigger problem for the Patriots than the Seahawks. (Note that I don't count penalties that take place after a turnover against the offense or defense, and they are included in the "ST/Other" category.)

All Penalties vs. Seattle and New England, 2014
(regular season, declined/offsetting included)
  Seattle New England
Unit Pen Rk PenYd Rk Pen Rk PenYd Rk
Offense 70 2t 454 4 61 8 413 8
Defense 57 6t 427 7 52 12t 442 5
ST/Other 15 29 128 26 29 5t 225 6

The Patriots do rank higher in defensive penalty yardage than they do in total defensive penalties, in part because they earned 11 DPI penalties (Tennessee led the league with 15) and in part because they had only five penalties on defense that were declined or offset. This is a big change for the Patriots, who ranked 29th in the NFL with just 83 penalties in 2013 and were around the league average with 114 penalties in 2012.

By my current count, the league leaders in penalties with 16 apiece were Tampa Bay lineman Demar Dotson and Cleveland cornerback Buster Skrine. Seattle-turned-New England cornerback Browner was right behind them with 15 penalties despite only playing in nine games. That's five DPIs, four holding calls, and an illegal contact, plus some extra non-coverage penalties like two unnecessary roughness flags. Not one to slow his own roll, Browner has also drawn a penalty in each postseason game.

Nate Solder is second on the Pats with 10 penalties, Logan Ryan has 8, and Brandon LaFell somehow has only 7 even though it felt like he was getting flagged for contact on pick plays roughly three times a game in the first half of the season.

Not to be outdone -- ok, on second thought, still being slightly outdone -- one of Browner's replacements in Seattle has had similar problems. Michael Bennett actually led the Seahawks with 13 penalties in the regular season, including 10 different flags for the various flavors of offsides. However, second was cornerback Tharold Simon, who nearly matched Browner with 12 flags in only 10 games and only 5 starts, although four of his penalties came on punts rather than defense. Also getting penalized a lot in Seattle were Russell Okung (10), James Carpenter (9), and Byron Maxwell (9 for 105 yards because of two DPIs over 35 yards apiece).

This has been a lot of talk about penalties, I know, and we have not gotten to the weirdness yet.

Seattle and New England weren't just among the most penalized teams in the league. They were also among the teams which benefitted least from opponent penalties. But when I say "benfitted least from opponent penalties," there's a huge difference between Seattle and New England.

Seattle opponents were somehow called for just 85 penalties this year, only 70 of which actually counted. Yes, that means that the Seahawks were penalized nearly twice as often as their opponents. Every other team in the NFL had at least 110 penalties called on their opponents, and every other team in the NFL had at least 91 of those penalties accepted. The Patriots are near the bottom of both those lists (92 and 110) but still, the numbers regarding the Seahawks are seriously kooky.

All Penalties vs. Seattle and New England Opponents, 2014
(regular season, declined/offsetting included)
  Seattle New England
Unit Pen Rk PenYd Rk Pen Rk PenYd Rk
Other Offense 42 30t 284 28 44 28 278 30
Other Defense 32 32 251 29 51 14t 380 13
ST/Other 11 32 78 32 15 30 94 30

The average NFL team gained 887 yards from opposing penalties this year. The Patriots gained only 752. The Seahawks gained only 613. Seattle is supposed to be the loudest place in the NFL to play, right? We did a study a few years ago that actually suggested there were consistently more false starts called on opponents in Seattle than in most stadiums. This year, during the regular season, officials called only five false starts against Seattle's opponents at CenturyLink Field. (There were also five with the Seahawks on the road.)

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If there's anything I hope that people have learned this week, it's that statistical outliers don't necessarily prove anything other than "hey, look, interesting outlier!" I have no idea why officials didn't call penalties on Seattle opponents, and I'm not going to suggest any kind of official bias against the Seahawks. I do know that this seems to be a one-year issue. In 2013, the Seahawks led the NFL with 145 penalties (including declined and offsetting) but their opponents were flagged 117 times, tied for 13th. Two years ago, the Seahawks had 132 penalties (tied for fourth) and their opponents had 129 penalties (seventh).

It's just really, really strange, and it does suggest that in a game with even officiating, the Seahawks and Patriots both might be a little better than they looked to the naked eye this season. But Seattle's little better would be a little more better than New England's.

Note that penalties are something that often get changed in the official play-by-play after the season, so these numbers all are subject to update. Also, this is where I would love to tell you about the penalty trends for referee Bill Vinovich, but that seems pointless since he won't be working with the same crew that he worked with throughout the regular season.


27 comments, Last at 31 Jan 2015, 7:47pm

#1 by LyleNM // Jan 27, 2015 - 5:06pm

This is what a lot of Seahawks fans have been trying to point out this year. Yes, the Seahawks are taking a lot of penalties. But their opponents are apparently never guilty of offensive holding, defensive holding, illegal contact, etc.? To the point of being a serious statistical outlier? Just hard to understand.

Points: 0

#13 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 28, 2015 - 9:35am

Seattle's problem with the ratio seems to be that they love offensive false start and defensive unabated to QB. You know, the two obvious penalties that stop a play and are never declined.

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#16 by jtr // Jan 28, 2015 - 11:11am

Similarly, I thought it was pretty silly the degree to which a lot of people played up the "Seattle plays more physically than is legal every play and dares the refs to flag them" narrative this year. Most of their penalties were false starts and offsides, penalties which are not caused by being too physical and are basically never missed by the refs. Lazy sportswriters see that Seattle had the most penalties accepted against them and mail in the same column as last year about Sherman hitting receivers too much when the real problem was Okung getting out of his stance too early.

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#2 by FlagTrack // Jan 27, 2015 - 5:06pm

If you do want to see some statistics on Vinovich (even though they may be irrelevant) I just launched a site that tracks officials on a per game basis:

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#3 by myeomans // Jan 27, 2015 - 6:26pm

There must be some connection between the kind of offense a team runs and what penalties it draws from the defense, no? I say this as a Ravens fan who's watched Flacco toss up DPI bait for years. There are other examples, probably - for example teams that play with the snap count might get more defensive offsides?

So maybe there's something about Seattle that doesn't draw penalties? Maybe there's a more systematic way to approach this..

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#4 by Perfundle // Jan 27, 2015 - 6:54pm

There are other examples, probably - for example teams that play with the snap count might get more defensive offsides?

In Seattle's case, they play with the snap count and get more false starts; it feels that most of their false starts occur on Wilson's hard counts.

But opposing offenses don't commit penalties against Seattle either, so it can't just be about how opponents play Seattle's offense. However, a reason why opposing offenses don't get called as much is because they have considerably fewer snaps; in the regular season they've averaged 57.8 plays, easily the lowest in the NFL, compared to the league average of 64.0.

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#7 by myeomans // Jan 27, 2015 - 7:10pm

good call on snap count adjustments. that seems like an obvious tweak for these raw counts. And surely there's things a defense can do to draw more offensive penalties, right? blitzing teams might get more holding/false start penalties, for example...

I'm thinking more about the general model for predicting penalties, rather than the specifics of why this particular seahawks team doesn't get calls. I'm always annoyed when the announcers rack up high penalty counts to "discipline", which is almost certainly nonsense. There are most likely some first-order structural effects.

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#11 by PaddyPat // Jan 28, 2015 - 12:40am

I think Oakland plays a factor in that announcer boiler plate. For many years it really did seem like the Raiders played with less "discipline." Did you watch the first Oakland game in 2003, for example?

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#5 by Will Allen // Jan 27, 2015 - 7:02pm

Mediocre offensive linemen rack up lots of false starts.

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#6 by Aaron Schatz // Jan 27, 2015 - 7:05pm

We've never found consistent ability for quarterbacks to draw opponents offsides or for specific defenses to force false starts or offensive holding calls. But there are, no doubt, certain quarterbacks who will draw DPI more often, led by Mr. Flacco.

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#8 by Never Surrender // Jan 27, 2015 - 8:14pm

Seattle's stadium is so loud that most teams rely heavily on silent counts, no? That might help explain why you aren't seeing many false starts for opposing offensive linemen.

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#9 by Perfundle // Jan 27, 2015 - 9:12pm

Well, opponents were called for 11 false starts in 2013, and presumably they were relying heavily on silent counts then as well.

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#14 by Karl Cuba // Jan 28, 2015 - 9:51am

I think it could be that teams really started to notice just how debilitating the noise in Seattle is for an offense. Teams that had played there a lot, like the niners, knew about it but the Saints visit in prime time during the 2013 regular season became a rout partly because they didn't seem prepared.

It might be just as loud but at least everybody knows about it now and will work extra hard on their silent count etc.

Just a theory.

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#10 by scraps // Jan 28, 2015 - 12:12am

Pete Carroll, in his mild way, several weeks ago called out the lack of penalties by Seahawks opponents.

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#12 by IAmJoe // Jan 28, 2015 - 1:48am

Seattle's outlier there is even more strange with the stat you mentioned early on about how often SF was flagged, as that accounts for a full 1/8 of Seattle's opponent-games. Are ARI/STL sticking out as particularly well-behaved teams (with Gregg Williams no less!) to balance some of that out, or is it just something of nothing being called regardless of who the opponent is for Seattle?

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#15 by nat // Jan 28, 2015 - 11:06am

Seattle has low play counts, especially on defense.

Seattle passes less than any team. (Passing plays generate more penalties on both sides)

Seattle is passed against less than any team. (ditto)

A QB leaving the pocket negates illegal contact penalties. Seattle does this a lot.

It seems like this is a non-issue.

This reminds me of the time Seattle was called for offensive holding TWICE IN ONE GAME, OMG, WTF!!!! when they were using a pass-heavy offense, passing more than twice as often as their opponent, and committing holding (by any standard) much more often.

Which is to say, it reminded me that Seattle fans like to fantasize about conspiring referees, and that FO is glad to oblige them from time to time.

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#20 by nat // Jan 28, 2015 - 1:22pm

Actually they did not happen last year.

In 2013, Seattle play counts were low, but not as low as this season.
They were just 26th in pass attempts against, not 32nd.
They were 31st in pass attempts made, not 32nd by a large margin.
I'll accept that Wilson still left the pocket a lot. But that's just a guess.

So, if by "All of these things" you meant "almost none of these things" then you are right.

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#22 by Perfundle // Jan 28, 2015 - 5:19pm

Notwithstanding your pedantry, my point was that Seattle was near the bottom of the league in most of your stats. If they actually decreased penalties by the amount that you assert, it would've shown up to a slightly lesser extent, instead of the league average number that actually occurred.

Nor do your theories hold up under scrutiny. Seattle only has low play counts on defense; their offensive play count is right around league average. Seattle's opponents actually commit an above-average amount of offensive holding despite the lack of throws, although they do commit considerably fewer penalties defending the pass. Also, a large chunk of the lack of penalties comes pre-snap. The article mentioned the incredibly low number of false starts. Their opponents also committed only 4 of the variants of defensive offsides penalties compared to the league average of 10. In fact, if Seattle's opponents had been average at committing pre-snap penalties on offense, defense and special teams, they would be very near league average in opponent penalties. And if Seattle had been average at committing pre-snap penalties, they would be league average in self penalties too.

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#17 by Aaron Schatz // Jan 28, 2015 - 11:23am

I just want to point out here that people should really read the articles we write.

Please don't accuse of us obliging conspiracy theorists who suggest some kind of official bias against the Seahawks in an article that specifically says "I'm not going to suggest any kind of official bias against the Seahawks."

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#21 by Anon Ymous // Jan 28, 2015 - 1:41pm

Is there a large discrepancy between home/away penalties for either team?

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#23 by Pen // Jan 29, 2015 - 2:30am

One interesting item noticed on another website a couple of months ago is when you compare how many penalties are called against an opponent to what that opponent has called against them on average vs all other opponents. In that comparison, Seattle is an even greater outlier. I wish I could find the website where I read that on. They had some excellent graphs.

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#24 by EricL // Jan 29, 2015 - 2:18pm

It was posted on Field Gulls a week or two after Thanksgiving, in light of the extreme imbalance in penalties during the Sea/SF game. That was about when this narrative hit its peak.

It mirrored a lot of what I'd expected to see from my brief research. Seattle opponents were being called for significantly fewer penalties when playing against Seattle than they averaged the remainder of the season. Something like 2.5 less per game. (No other team had a differential of more than about 1.2 in either direction, IIRC.)

The thing about these numbers, though, is if you remove pre-snap penalties from the equation, it isn't as extreme. Seattle remains having the highest differential, but it's no longer so much of an outlier, and is more in range of reasonable random fluctuations.

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#25 by mehllageman56 // Jan 29, 2015 - 2:54pm

Noticed that the Jets were second to last in opponent penalties, and they run the ball a lot, like Seattle. Another question I have about this, was offensive holding down this year? I felt that Richardson and Wilkerson got held a lot, without it being called, and I wonder if the same thing happened to the Seahawks.

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#26 by johonny // Jan 29, 2015 - 3:32pm

I thought (read) throughout NFL history teams with darker Jerseys drew more penalties than teams with lighter colors. At least this was a wildly cited statistic during the late 80s early nineties. I thought this was supposed to really stand out for teams with black home Jerseys. Is(was) this ever true? We aren't talking a one year blip but a twenty year sample someone ran back in the mid eighties.

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#27 by RickD // Jan 31, 2015 - 7:47pm

There are stats that shouldn't be random (losing fumbles) and those that seem like they really ought to be. I guess "drawing penalties" could be construed as a skill somehow, but this chart is really baffling.

Points: 0

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