MHR Primer Looks At: A Question About Penalties

     I'd like to take a moment to answer a question posed by MHR member Baghdad. This question was posed as a comment in the last MHR Primer article. He was wondering if the allegations of cheating against McDaniels might have influenced the refereeing and increased the number of calls that went against the Broncos. He asked:

"in basketball they give the good teams alot of the calls especially if they are winning. Do you think the Broncos poor defensive performance increased the calls agains’t them like the phantom calls another blogger mentioned?"


I decided to take a look back at Denver's history in regards to penalties. Take a jump and see what was found

     To answer Baghdad's question, I went to the NFL's official website and surveyed the number of penalties called against the Broncos. I decided to use the data from the last fifteen seasons. I figured that was a large enough sample to give us a reasonable picture, was a small enough sample to be easily manageable, and would give us a picture of the Broncos from the lofty heights of a 13-3 season with a playoff upset  that was followed by consecutive Super Bowl victories all the way to the depths of 2010's 4-12 season. The table below offers up the following information from the last fifteen seasons:

Year Self-explanatory
LMIn the fewest number of penalties committed by any team during that season
LMax the greatest number of penalties committed by any team during that season
LAve the average number of penalties committed by teams during that season
DRec the Broncos regular season record from that season
DPen the number of penalties committed by Denver during that season
Rank the Broncos relative league ranking in penalties (the larger the number the better)
+/=/- whether the Broncos were above, at or below the league average


The Broncos' Penalties Over the Last Fifteen Seasons


Year LMin LMax LAve DRec DPen Rank +/=/-
2010 58 148 96.8 4-12-0 98 15 +
2009 70 118 94.7 8-8-0 93 18 -
2008 57 119 89.6 8-8-0 77 26 -
2007 59 137 91.6 7-9-0 90 17 -
2006 67 123 95.2 9-7-0 67 32 -
2005 91 147 116.2 13-3-0* 97 29 -
2004 79 134 111.6 10-6-0* 93 30 -
2003 69 134 105.6 10-6-0* 107 14 +
2002 75 137 104 9-7-0 104 16 =
2001 62 123 89.8 8-8-0 95 15 +
2000 76 134 98.1 11-5-0* 89 24 -
1999 70 136 101.9 6-10-0 114 8 +
1998 69 158 104.6 14-2-0** 115 15 +
1997 77 142 96.9 12-4-0** 116 5 +
1996 76 156 99.2 13-3-0* 109 13 +

* Denver made the playoffs
** Denver won the Super Bowl

     When we look at the data, we can see that in 8 out of 15 seasons, the Broncos were at or below the league average in penalties. In 7 out of 15 seasons they were below the average. In 5 out of the 8 seasons they were at/below the average they had a winning record. In 2 out of those 8 seasons they were at .500. In only 1 of those 8 years did they have a losing record.

     In 7 out of 15 seasons the Broncos were above the league average in penalties. In 4 out of those 7 seasons they had a winning record, made it to the playoffs and won two Super Bowls. In 1 of those 7 seasons they were at .500. In 2 of those 7 seasons they had a losing  record.

     This leaves us without an ability to draw a definitive conclusion regarding a correlation between record and penalties. Let's take a slightly different look at this topic.

The Best & the Worst Teams in Each Season (in case of ties, I used draft order)
Year Best Rec Pen Rank +/- Worst Rec Pen Rank +/-
2010 NE 14-2-0 83 25 - Car 2-14-0 106 8 +
2009 Ind 14-2-0 74 31 - StL 1-15-0 100 10 +
2008 Ten 13-3-0 108 4 + Det 0-16-0 88 17 -
2007 NE 16-0-0 78 25 - Mia 1-15-0 92 16 -
2006 SD 14-2-0 90 20 - Oak 2-14-0 111 7 +
2005 Ind 14-2-0 94 30 - NO 3-13-0 135 7 +
2004 Pit 15-1-0 99 28 - SF 2-14-0 74 25 -
2003 NE 14-2-0 111 10 + SD 4-12-0 126 4 +
2002 TB 13-3-0 103 18 - Cin 2-14-0 99 23 -
2001 StL 14-2-0 107 6 + Car 1-15-0 87 21 -
2000 Ten 13-3-0 107 11 + SD 1-15-0 121 3 +
1999 Jax 14-2-0 90 27 - Cle 2-14-0 92 26 -
1998 Den 14-2-0 115 15 + Phi 3-13-0 102 23 -
1997 GB 13-3-0 93 24 - Ind 3-13-0 106 12 +
1996 GB 13-3-0 92 25 - NYJ 1-15-0 110 11 +

     We find that 5 out of 15 times, the best team in the league was above the league average in the number of penalties committed. 10 out of 15 times the best team was below the league average. 8 out of 15 times, the worst team was above the league average while 7 out of 15 times it was below the average.

     About the only thing that can be drawn from this is that, in general, the team with the best record tended to draw fewer flags than the league average. Is that a case of them "getting a break" from the officials because they're good, or is it rather a case of them simply being good because they committed fewer fouls? I'm inclined to believe the latter.

     The fact that nearly half of the time, the team with the worst record in the league was below the league average in assessed penalties would suggest that the referees do not tend to "pick on" teams that are playing poorly by throwing more flags on them. Let's look at the question from one more angle.

The Teams with the Fewest and the Most Penalties in Each Season

Year Most Pen Team Rec Least Pen Team Rec
2010 148 Oak 8-8-0 58 Atl 13-3-0
2009 118 GB 11-5-0 70 Jax 7-9-0
2008 119 Dal 9-7-0 57 NE 11-5-0
2007 137 Ari 8-8-0 59 Sea 10-6-0
2006 123 Min 6-10-0 67 Den 9-7-0
2005 147 Oak 4-12-0 91 Car 11-5-0
2004 134 Oak 5-11-0 79 Sea 9-7-0
2003 134 Oak 4-12-0 69 NYJ 6-10-0
2002 137 Min 6-10-0 75 KC 8-8-0
2001 123 Buf 3-13-0 62 NYJ 10-6-0
2000 134 SF 6-10-0 76 NYJ 9-7-0
1999 136 Dal 8-8-0 70 Ari 6-10-0
1998 158 KC 7-9-0 69 CIn 3-13-0
1997 142 StL 5-11-0 77 TB 10-6-0
1996 156 Oak 7-9-0 76 Ind 9-7-0

     In not one single case during these fifteen seasons did the team that drew the most penalties also record the worst record. Likewise, there is not a single case of the team with the best record walking away with the fewest flags. This would once again suggest that the officials do not punish the poor playing teams with more flags and award the better playing ones with fewer.

     Now, I certainly do not believe that the officials are not more inclined to watch the poorly playing teams a bit more closely and are not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the better playing teams on close calls, just as I'm reasonably certain that players with reputations for committing fouls are scrutinized a bit more closely than other players during the course of a game. As an overall general trend? I'm not convinced.

An Aside About Game Speed

     As i was looking at this data, I found myself wondering if the speed of the NFL game is one of the reasons that officials sometimes make mistakes in their call. As fans, we have the benefit of watching one or more slow motion replays of a particular play while the officials and teams are setting up for the next play. Unless there's a challenge the officials do not get that advantage. An example of this comes from the Broncos game versus the 49ers in London. During that game, the Broncos were leading 7-3 with 42 seconds left in the 3rd quarter. Orton faked a hand off to Moreno who plunged into the middle of the line. Orton then lofted a 38-yard pass to Gaffney for a touchdown. The play was brought back when Moreno was flagged for throwing a chop block. A chop block by definition is a block in which a player attempts to block a defender in the legs when that defender has already been engaged by another blocker. Slow motion replays show that Moreno moved towards the line then turned his back towards the line and tried to drop to the ground to avoid a charging linebacker. As he began this motion, Walton turned to try to block the defender who was coming unblocked through the line. However, at game speed, it certainly looks like Moreno was trying to drive his shoulder into the legs of a defender who has been engaged by Walton.

     Overall, my sense -- based  on this limited look -- is that playing well or playing poorly overall has had little or no correlation to the number of penalties assessed against the Broncos in particular and the league in general. I'm inclined to believe that the officials are doing the best they can given the rules that have been written and the speed of the game. So maybe next time we shouldn't be quite so quick to hurl the TV remote when an official makes a mistake.

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