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)
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)
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.