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Running the Numbers: How Much Do Penalties Hurt NFL Teams?

Jonathan Bales

I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between penalties and winning for a few years now, even though I haven’t necessarily written extensively on the subject in this forum. When the Cowboys signed offensive tackle Alex Barron a few years ago, I wrote an article on the negative impact of Barron’s false starts. The tackle had committed 43 false starts over the previous five seasons in St. Louis.

From that post:

Barron’s false starts were responsible for the loss of 24.4 expected points over the course of five seasons, or about five points per year.  In essence, each false start cost the Rams 1/2 expected point, which is in line with league averages.

Expected points are one thing, but how do the false starts and subsequent loss of expected points affect a team’s win total?  Well, five points over the course of a season translates to just about .12 wins.  Thus, Barron’s (and those of Adams) false starts were annoying, but not as costly to a team’s success as you might believe.

One of the things I may have overlooked in that article on Barron is what sort of style of play accompanies certain types of penalties. False starts and other mental mistakes, although often not devastating to a team in terms of lost yards, come with no benefits. Players who frequently false start likely don’t have a tremendous mental grasp in other aspects of their game, such as blocking assignments and so on.

On the other hand, penalties such as roughing the passer and defensive pass interference are the result of aggressive play. The mindset that accompanies such penalties can lead to benefits for a team, such as interceptions and sacks. Thus, although more detrimental than mental errors in a limited sense, aggressive penalties might be the inevitable result of an attacking style of play.

That’s exactly what I found in my latest Running the Numbers post at DallasCowboys.com. Check it out:

On paper, everything adds up for defensive pass interference to lead to defeat. The call itself can be incredibly disadvantageous to a defense, providing the offense with the ball at the spot of the foul, plus an automatic first down. On top of that, you’d expect poor defenses to commit more pass interference infractions because they get out of position. Lastly, bad teams tend to have their defense on the field a lot, i.e. more time to accrue penalties.

However, teams that generate a lot of pass interference calls aren’t actually more likely to lose than those that limit the penalty. Since 2006, teams that have finished in the top 10 in defensive pass interference (meaning they were flagged the least often) have won 7.9 games per season. Those in the bottom 10 have won 8.0 games per year.

You can see above that in four of the past six seasons teams that finished with the most pass interference calls won the same amount or more games than the teams with the fewest pass interference penalties.

As I tracked different types of penalties, I noticed the same trend; those that come as a result of aggressive play (such as pass interference, roughing the passer and illegal contact) aren’t correlated to losing football games. This is so astounding because these penalties are often the most harmful to a team.

I realize looking at defensive pass interference alone results in a limited sample size, but the trend extends over most “aggressive” penalties. I find this fascinating.

The results of this study suggest teams shouldn’t really do everything possible to limit penalties. Aggressive play without penalties is of course ideal, but probably not possible. Some penalties are the result of a specific style of play that, as the numbers show, leads to more benefits than disadvantages. It’s a medium risk/high reward style of play that is superior to the low risk/low reward style of play that characterized the pre-Rob Ryan Dallas Cowboys defense.

Follow Jonathan Bales on Twitter


Dallas Cowboys 2010 Season Predictions: Six Lists of Five

  • Most Likely to Break Out in 2010

1.  Dez Bryant

Bryant’s got all the talent in the world.  He just needs to stay healthy.  His most immediate impact could come on punt returns.

2.  Victor Butler

Butler looked sensational in the preseason and his run defense is vastly improved.  He could see 250, maybe even 300 snaps this season.

3.  Jason Hatcher

A lot of people like Stephen Bowen over Hatcher, but Hatcher received the higher grade from me in 2009 and is more likely to break out this season because of his stout 4.40 percent quarterback pressure rate.

4.  Stephen Bowen

Bowen will get his opportunities too.  He’s Igor Olshansky’s primary backup, though, so he may not see the field much on first down.

5.  Doug Free

He’s looked pretty good in the preseason and, with such an elusive quarterback, he has a chance to keep his sack total down.

  • Most Likely to Be Gone in 2011 (Besides the Obvious)

1.  Marcus Spears

Spears is playing on a one-year tender and has two rising defensive ends on his heels for playing time.

2.  Marion Barber

If Barber continues to show a lack of burst through the regular season, Tashard Choice will take his place in 2011.

3.  Sam Hurd

Hurd may actually be gone before the start of this season.  There certainly won’t be room next year.

4.  Deon Anderson

If the Cowboys keep Chris Gronkowski, it likely means they are grooming him for the future.

5.  Roy Williams

If Williams’ contract wasn’t so hefty, he’d already be gone.  Releasing him will be easier next year if he produces little again in 2010.

  • Sleepers to Produce in 2010

1. Robert Brewster

I’d be willing to beat Marc Colombo won’t make it through the season unscathed, and Brewster is a more natural fit than Alex Barron on the right side.

2. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah

He’s already shown play-making ability on returns and I haven’t liked what I’ve seen from Alan Ball this preseason. ‘Kwasi is a cerebral player who won’t make mental errors.

3. Phil Costa

Like Brewster, Costa will probably be the primary backup to an aging player.  He’s earned the right to be the center (over Kyle Kosier) in the event that Andre Gurode goes down.

4. Cletis Gordon

He’s outplayed Orlando Scandrick of late and, while I didn’t believe it before, I now think there’s a shot that he eventually pushes for playing time in the slot.

5A. Josh Brent

He’s only got Junior Siavii to beat for the backup spot at nose tackle, and the ‘Boys would love to get Jay Ratliff more rest.

5B. Pat McQuistan

Just kidding.

  • Most Likely to Lead the Team in Penalties

1.  Jason Witten

Yes, believe it or not, Witten has always had a problem with false starts.  We ignore them because he’s so talented, but with Flozell Adams gone, Witten could lead the team.

2.  Andre Gurode

The way he got beat last week, he’ll need to hold defenders early and often.

3.  Marc Colombo

He had six last season in just 391 snaps–close to Flozell’s penalty rate.

4.  DeMarcus Ware

Ware jumps offsides sometimes (and even lines up there quite a bit) in an effort to get to the quarterback even quicker.

5.  Gerald Sensabaugh

With a plethora of Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends on the schedule (Dallas Clark, Owen Daniels, Greg Olsen, etc.), Sensabaugh has the potential to get beat and called for pass interference often this season.

  • Most Likely to Make the Pro Bowl

1. DeMarcus Ware

He’s as close to a sure thing as you’re going to get.

2. Tony Romo

His poor preseason play won’t carry into the regular season.  Trust me.

3. Jason Witten

He might see less targets this season, but the extra weapon outside (you know who) will open up even more room for Witten to roam in the middle.

4. Miles Austin

He’s be higher on the list but there’s so many talented wide receivers in the NFC.

5A. Anthony Spencer

He’s going to break out in a big way in 2010.  Don’t discount the possibility of 15 sacks.

5B. Mike Jenkins

His tackling needs to improve, but his play-making ability could result in a bunch of interceptions–meaning he’ll get the fan vote.

5C. Pat McQuistan

No, seriously.

  • Top Five Fantasy Players

1.  Tony Romo

If he stays healthy, he’ll throw for 4,000 yards and probably 30+ touchdowns.  The way the offensive line is playing, however, means staying healthy is a big question mark right now.

2.  Miles Austin

Go ahead and project Austin’s ’09 numbers over 16 starts.  Holy crap.

3.  Jason Witten

He may not be as valuable in PPR (point-per-reception) leagues this year, but I can guarantee he’ll catch more than two touchdowns.

4.  Felix Jones

He may not start, but he’ll receive the most touches among Cowboys running backs.  If Marion Barber loses his short-yardage duties (which should have already happened), Jones will be a steal.

5A.  Dez Bryant

Bryant simply has more upside than Roy Williams.  He’s certainly one to target in keeper leagues.

5B.  Pat McQuistan

If you’re in a league that rewards points for being ugly and missing a ton of blocks, you might want to trade up to the first pick for this guy.


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