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Penalties are becoming as important as defense in today’s NFL

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With the uptick in subjective penalties, the most effective defense in the NFL is now drawing fouls.

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

One of the hallmarks of a strong, well-functioning democracy is the existence of clear, easy-to-understand laws. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the US Supreme Court is the idea of stare decisis. Stare decisis is just a fancy phrase for the idea that people should be able to rely on the laws as they exist, based on precedent, and that drastic changes in interpretation of the law should only be undertaken in extraordinary circumstances. People build families and businesses based on the law, and if the law isn’t reliable, it will hurt people.

The NFL is, of course, a poorly-functioning monopoly, and as such, they are littered with muddled, unclear laws open to wide interpretation from semi-incompetent hereditary monarchs. The game was once a contest between football teams, but is increasingly a contest for the favor of men in stripes, and penalties, not plays, are now frequently the most important “plays” of any given NFL game. For instance...

In the first quarter of their most recent game against Washington, the Green Bay Packers’ defense had a drive on which they committed three different pass interference penalties. Unsurprisingly, the Washingtons scored. On the next Packer drive, Bryan Bulaga was called for a hold. Holding penalties are nearly always fatal to drives absent a subsequent defensive penalty, and the drive stalled out. In the 3rd quarter Jason Spriggs false-started, and the Packers came up two yards short when Randall Cobb dropped a 4th down pass, turning the ball over. On Washington’s next drive they benefited from the garbage Clay Matthews roughing the passer penalty, but after that, Vernon Davis was called for holding, and the drive stalled out. On the next Packer drive, Lane Taylor was called for holding, and the drive stalled out. On their final drive, Spriggs was called for holding, and the drive stalled out.

Last season there were 220 penalties called per week. This year, there are 235, and while that may not seem like a big increase in the short term, over the course of a season that’s an additional 240 plays directly impacted by officials. Moreover, with the huge uptick in roughing penalties, many of the additional penalties are big, subjective, and drive-altering.

  • 2014 - 3526 penalties
  • 2015 - 3671
  • 2016 - 3544
  • 2017 - 3525
  • 2018 (pace) - 3760

Offenses are decent at overcoming 5-yard deficits, and false starts/offsides penalties are the most objectively simple calls in the game. Holding penalties and personal fouls have huge impacts, as do DPI plays. Holding happens on almost every play, and officials decide to call it seemingly at random. Pass interference is also hardly objective, and we’ve already seen a game this year in which the refs missed an obvious call on a bomb to Jimmy Graham while making a phantom call against Davante Adams on the very next play. On just those two plays the refs robbed the Packers of something like 75 yards. 75! That’s occasionally the Packers’ rushing total for an entire game.

Against Minnesota two weeks ago, penalties dictated much of the flow of the game. On the Vikings’ second drive, Rashod Hill was called for holding, and the Packers blocked the resulting punt for a touchdown. In the 2nd quarter, the Packers got a defensive holding penalty against MacKenzie Alexander on 3rd and 2. They would later score a touchdown. On the Vikings’ next drive they were called for an illegal formation. They didn’t convert, and punted. On the very next Packers drive Justin McCray false started. The Packers punted. Davante Adams was hit with OPI on the next drive. The Packers punted. The Vikings got great field position at the 46, but a holding penalty held them to a 48-yard field goal attempt that they missed. In the final two minutes of the half, Eric Kendricks was flagged incorrectly for roughing. The extra 15 yards led to an easy Mason Crosby FG as time expired. In the 3rd quarter Aaron Rodgers hit Graham for a TD from the Minnesota 12, but Lane Taylor was called for holding and they settled for a field goal. And in the 4th we got the Matthews BS. You know how that turned out.

People say that the secret to overcoming officiating is simply to play well enough to ensure the refs don’t matter, but I’m not sure most people realize how much refs impact a game and just how subjective many of these calls are. Obviously some are legitimate and need to be called, but holding happens on nearly every play, and the consequences of a holding call are devastating to an offense. Adding in yet another subjective penalty is literally changing the game.

There is a line here, and I think we’re across it. In the Minnesota game, refs made game-altering calls on more than half of the game’s drives. That’s a bad position for the NFL to be in, and while the default for commentators is to say that the players ultimately determine the outcome, that is clearly no longer the case. When officials are causing what are essentially turnovers routinely, the rules need to be changed.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that holding penalties are called more frequently on running plays than passing plays. Given the severe penalty against holding, teams really should reduce their run calls even more.