Data Visualizations
from Best Tickets

NFL Penalties: The Facts and Figures of Flags

In 1999, in a game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Tennessee Titans were penalized 15 times for 212 yards. Most teams would not be able to overcome such a deficit, but the Titans, who would eventually reach the Super Bowl that season, managed to pull out a victory in this particular game. Penalties can add up quickly and unless your team is championship-bound, too many flags can really hurt your chances at getting a win.

Which NFL team is the best at avoiding penalties? Which is the worst? And do the numbers indicate that penalties are a major factor in a team’s success? These are a few of the questions I’ll try to answer in the following study, which breaks down all the penalties from the 2009 season up until week 15 of 2013.  Enjoy!


What’s the Call?

Below, a look at how many times each penalty has been called over the years and for how many yards.

All Penalties

The top five most common offenses are highlighted in blue at the top of the chart. These five penalties account for more than 1/3 of all the penalties called in the NFL since 2009, and more than half of the total yardage incurred from penalties since that time. The most detrimental penalty to teams is the always-frustrating holding penalty, which has incurred more than 27,00 penalty yards. The two penalties at the bottom of the table, “illegal forward handoff” and “illegally kicking ball” have been called here and there over the years, but they have always been declined or offset. That is why they make up 0% of the sample here.

We know that the style of play in the NFL has changed over the years, and along with those changes have come alterations to the NFL rule book. Most notably, receivers have more protection than they used to, and certain types of hits that used to be considered legal are now met with an unnecessary roughness penalty. Below, we’ll examine the frequency with which each penalty has been called during each season. Do the numbers support the change in rules?

Corrected calls per game2

As you can see, false start and offensive holding penalties are the only calls that are called more than once per game on average. The third most frequently called penalty in 2013 is defensive pass interference. Since 2009, the frequency of defensive pass interference has increased each year, particularly from 2011 to 2012. This supports the thought that receivers have been getting extra protection as of late.

Unnecessary roughness penalties increased sharply this year in the NFL’s attempt to cut down on head shots. Unfortunately, this year has also been a particularly brutal year for injuries. Some people think the rule change has actually contributed to this problem, but that is another issue entirely.

Another penalty that saw a big increase this year was taunting, which may or may not be due to another recent rule change. As of this year, spinning the ball in the direction of an opponent is considered a taunting penalty. I am not clear on whether or not that has had an impact on how frequently the penalty is called, but the data says it certainly could have.


Who Gets Flagged?

Now for a bit more in depth analysis. Who, specifically, is getting penalized in the NFL? To start, we’ll look at the most penalized teams in the league.

Penalty Count

The Oakland Raiders are particularly bad when it comes to penalties. They lead the league in penalties incurred since 2009 and by a pretty wide margin. Their penalty counts in 2010 and 2011 (148 and 163 respectively) are the two highest penalty counts for any team during a single season in our data set.

The Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins sit at the coveted opposite end of the spectrum, both with no more than 96 penalties in any given season. It would appear that the Dolphins have a legitimate shot at overtaking the Falcons this year as the least-penalized team since 2009. They have about 20 fewer penalties than the Falcons so far, with two more games left in the season.

Penalty Yards

Here we see how those penalties translated into losses of yardage for the offenders. The Raiders have been penalized for  more than 1,000 yards per year since 2009. That’s an average of more than 60 yards per game lost (or given to the opposition) because of penalties. That’s an excellent way to earn yourself a five-year record of 29-47.

The Falcons, who have earned far fewer penalty yards, have a five-year record of 48-29, nearly the exact opposite of the Raiders. This includes their massive implosion of a season this year. Coincidentally (or maybe not), the Falcons’ average number of penalties per game so far this year (5.79) is the highest it has been in the years this study includes.

We’ve looked at the teams, now let’s turn our attention to the players. Below, the NFL players with the most penalties called against them since 2009.

Most Frequently Penalized NFL Players 2009-13

Michael Oher, offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, is the most frequently penalized NFL player since 2009. In these years alone, he has drawn 26 false start penalties and 15 holding penalties. Of the 21 players listed above, 10 are offensive linemen (11 if you include Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew). Philip Rivers as the third most penalized player in the NFL is a bit of a surprise. Rivers has been called for 32 delay of game penalties since 2009, 12 of which came in 2010. That is quite a lot and is pretty strange, as avoiding delay of game penalties is not all that difficult with an organized offense. Perhaps the problem here stems from something other than Rivers.

NFL Players with Most Penalty Yardage 2009-13

Here we see the players responsible for accruing the most penalty yards since 2009. First of all…Stanford Routt with 422 yards is just crazy. That’s nearly 80 yards per season. How did he do it? With 16 defensive pass interference penalties and 14 defensive holding penalties. The ridiculousness of Routt’s penalty numbers are compounded by the fact that he hasn’t played since week 8 of 2012. He managed to do more damage in 3.5 seasons than any other player has managed to do in 4.8. Impressive. The other standout name we see here is Richie Incognito and that is all I have to say about him.

 Beneficial Penalties
With penalties, there is always a winner and a loser. We’ve looked at the losers, so now let’s look at the winners.
Beneficial penalty count
583 penalties in favor of the Green Bay Packers! That is a sizable amount, and I’d be willing to bet that the high-powered passing game in Green Bay along with a strong pass-rush, might have something to do with it. Chicago comes as a surprise at the bottom of this list despite having some headache-inducing skill players on offense in Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall.

Getting the calls is always nice, but how do they add up?

Beneficial Penalty Yards

Of the top ten teams on this list, seven have been to the Super Bowl since 2009. Four of those seven have won the game. Only the Saints and Steelers fall outside of the top ten and have also made it to the Super Bowl since 2009. Chicago, again in the bottom slot, is surprising.

The teams with the best net penalty yardage since 2009 are the Colts (1,540), the Falcons (1,150) and the Dolphins (715).

The teams with the worst net penalty yardage since 2009 are the Raiders (-997), Cowboys (-649) and the Texans (-529).

How does your team stack up? Are you surprised to see any of those players on the most-penalized list? Leave your comments below!


The raw data for this piece is available for download by clicking one of the two buttons below.




Concept Development: Brett Cohen, Andrew Powell-Morse

Created by: Andrew Powell-Morse

Brought to you by: Best Tickets

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Comments (4)

  1. aldoplepi - Reply

    December 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Another standout fact: Ravens most penalized in total # of penalties and yardage, but second for beneficial # of penalties and first for yardage. Even-Steven?

  2. aldoplepi - Reply

    December 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Ugh, I kept thinking of Michael Oher as I was writing. Let me rephrase: Ravens fifth most in total # of penalties and second for yardage, but second for beneficial # of penalties and first for yardage. In top 5 of all four categories.

  3. Dave H - Reply

    December 18, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    The False Start penalty is the most ridiculous infraction in all of organized sports. It’s a totally arbitrary rule that has nothing to do with the reasons people like to watch football. Enforce “offside” penalties (player in neutral zone when ball is snapped), but forget about false starts for tiny flinches. There’s no reason to make it a penalty. Neither team can enter the neutral zone until the ball is snapped, period – incidental movement on the O line is irrelevant to enforcing this simple rule.

  4. Jeff Lawver - Reply

    December 23, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Too many arbitrary rules. Half the time the officials have to have a conference with each other to decide what really happened. Officials way too much the reason for outcome of games now. It gets harder to watch every year.

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