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Monday, April 23, 2007

Charting Our Progress – Yards Penalized Per Game

With the rebirth of this series I have decided to look at the statistical categories in order of relevance from least important to most important according to the fine work of SMQ. To accomplish this I have combined both parts of his stats relevance watch to determine which statistic was the least relevant in terms of W-L record and Top 25 ranking in 2006.

The overall loser was yards penalized per game. You can see its lack of relevance in CFB in the following table.

Now, here is the chart of Nebraska’s standing relative to the national average in this statistic.

And here is how they ranked nationally in each of those three season.
2004: 46th; 51.00 yards/game
2005: 63rd; 57.75 yards/game
2006: 41st; 43.86 yards/game
I could spend time analyzing Nebraska’s progress in this statistic, and it might actually be interesting to do so. But I won’t. Why spend time analyzing a statistic that has been shown to be irrelevant. How irrelevant? In 2006, Nebraska went 4-2 in games where they were penalized less yards than their opponent. In games the Huskers racked up more penalty yards they were 5-2 (the Cotton Bowl was a push as Nebraska and Auburn were both penalized 45 yards).

Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to examine why this statistic might not be as important as the casual observer might think.

First, let’s go with what SMQ said. After Part I:
“First counterintuitive result: the most penalized teams were slightly better as a whole than the least penalized teams. Penalty yardage, over the course of an entire season, had no discernible effects on winning and losing. You can probably think of a situation that would specifically argue otherwise, cuz penalties are definitely bad, mmmkay?, but they're bad more as situational mistakes than an overall, cumulative drain.
Then after Part II:
”Again, penalty yards stand out as utterly meaningless; as in Part One, higher penalty yardage actually correlates slightly more with success, which makes no sense and should not indicate that jumping offsides is desirable or even, in the short term, meaningless (hello, Louisville), but the overall, cumulative consequences of flags were apparently nil.”
Perhaps surprisingly, SMQ wasn’t actually the first to discover the lack of correlation between fewer yards penalized and success. Football Outsiders also examined this finding in the NFL back in 2003. They point out that this phenomenon was actually first noted in a 1988 book, The Hidden Game of Football written by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn. However, according to Football Outsiders these authors made a key error in describing it, when they said:
“[Penalties] don’t make a whole lot of difference. Over the course of a season, they tend to even out. For every drive-killing holding penalty, there’s an interference call that keeps a drive going.”
Football Outsiders doesn’t buy the “even-ing out” hypothesis, because:
”The truth is, penalties don’t even out. Looking at the whole of last season, it’s clear that some teams were consistently penalized more than other teams. The difference is equal to a few hundred yards, which is also the difference between the best teams and the worst teams in punt return yardage. Would we say punt returns don’t really matter and even out over the course of the season? Certainly not.”
Football Outsiders goes on to discuss that:
What is perhaps even more surprising is the discovery that the majority of Super Bowl champions have actually been more prone to penalties than their opponents in the regular season. In fact, of the 37 Super Bowl champions, 23 actually had more penalty yards than their opponents.
From here the article goes on to do the work for me. The talented Michael David Smith of Football Outsiders provides his theories for the finding that many of the most successful teams are actually penalized more in the NFL. I would guess that we could also apply these theories to college football as well. I will present each of Smith’s theories in italics and then provide my response after these.

1. Good teams have the lead late in the game, which means they’re on defense against the pass more often. This makes them more likely to be called for defensive pass interference, which is the only penalty that can cost more than 15 yards.
I never would have thought of this, but it seems like a possible explanation in the NFL. It is less helpful for college football given that pass interference is still just a 15 yard penalty.
2. Good teams are more likely to decline their opponents’ penalties and have their own penalties accepted. All the NFL’s statistics are for accepted penalties only; declined penalties are treated as if they never occurred. It would make sense that a good team is more likely to have a successful play and therefore decline an opponent’s penalty, whereas a bad team is more likely to have an unsuccessful play and take the penalty yards.
Another thought provoking hypothesis, that would be difficult to prove or dispel.
3. Good teams are more aggressive, and while aggressiveness is usually a positive trait in football, it can lead players to be penalized.
I actually like this hunch. It was the first one that came to mind. Think Florida State in the 90s.
4. Winning teams could be smarter about taking penalties at the right times. For instance, it’s often advantageous to take a delay of game penalty rather than waste a timeout. (This only happens a few times a season and probably isn’t statistically significant.)
I certainly agree with the lack of statistical significance portion of this hypothesis.
5. When discussing penalties, it’s important to keep in mind that, contrary to what coaches and commentators tend to say, penalties shouldn’t really be called “mistakes.” When an offensive lineman holds Michael Strahan, he didn’t do it on accident. He did it on purpose because he knew Michael Strahan would beat him otherwise. He just hoped he wouldn’t get caught. Ditto a defensive back interfering with Randy Moss. Yes, there are some penalties that are mistakes — offsides, false starts, delays of game — but even those would seem to happen more often against better opponents. I’d expect a tackle to be called for illegal procedure much more often against Jason Taylor than against some practice squad scrub. So when you see that the Giants’ opponents were flagged for more penalties than any other team’s opponents last year, don’t assume the Giants just got lucky. The Giants certainly played a role in it. Also keep in mind that NFL officiating crews are not all created equal. Some crews call more penalties than others. But even if one team was stuck with a flag-happy crew more times than another team, it would make no difference in the net penalties shown here.
Now we’re talking! This is one that definitely needs to be considered and should probably be analyzed more carefully. It certainly doesn’t clarify the entire picture, but no one ever seems to bring this one up.

Ok, let’s conclude this piece by keeping our wits about us. Teams should continue to attempt to avoid penalties whenever possible. And we should not expect to hear coaches come out and endorse a high number of penalties, but at the same time we now know a little bit more than most announcers about their relative importance. As Football Outsiders concludes:
So does this data say that penalties don’t matter? It most certainly does not. We’ve all seen penalties that had game-altering implications. But penalties are probably less important than coaches and commentators would have us believe. And this probably deserves further study.