Today we take a look back at the 2023 Denver Broncos season and their offensive penalties. I was really looking forward to seeing how the new system of coach Sean Payton would impact the penalties called throughout the year. The results ended up being a bit less exciting than the journey.
Denver had 54 offensive penalties, including 51 accepted. The league had a high of 65 (Jets) and a low of 35 (Raiders) and an average of 49. So the Denver offense was pretty average in its penalties. The yardage is a similar situation, Denver was at 362 accepted penalty yards, and the league average was 361. Three of the Denver penalties were intentional delay of game penalties.
Garret Bolles tied for 19th in the NFL with 8 penalties against him: 4 holds, 3 false starts, and one illegal formation. While this is not ideal, it shows that his reputation is somewhat out of step with his play. In his first three years in the league, Bolles was penalized about 14 times a season. In the four years since he has never had fewer than six or more than nine. Subjectively, this year I really liked his blocking as the season went on and thought that his play was getting much less holding-esque than even in recent years.
Mike McGlinchey also had 8 penalties called against him: 7 false starts and 1 offensive holding (that was declined). McGlinchey has fluctuated from 4 to 10 penalties per year through his career. In two seasons he loaded up on false starts, but mostly he has been called for holding. In that context, this was about as good as Denver had any reason to hope for out of McGlinchey when they signed him as a free agent.
Lloyd Cushenberry was called for 5 penalties including three false starts. This makes 3 times in his four years in the NFL where he has been called for multiple false starts in a season. This is a penalty that I can hardly believe gets called on a center, but its been a consistent problem for him. I have disliked most of the false starts against him, but the NFL has been consistently dinging him for this. I looked at the officiating crews that have flagged him over the years, and there has not been a lot of repetition. There is just something that I don’t object to in his game that officials repeatedly consider penalty worthy.
The last of our frequently penalized offensive players is Courtland Sutton. Sutton was penalized six times this year (including the holding call that should have been attributed to Lil’Jordan Humphrey), with four of those penalties for offensive pass interference. Previously he had been called for offensive pass interference 9 times over 4 seasons (ignoring 2020 where he barely played), so while this is an uptick, its not really much of a surprise. Sutton is very tall, and tall receivers tend to get called for pass interference much more frequently. He also plays physically and earns loads of defensive pass interference calls. All things considered, I neither disagree with these calls, nor find them a problem for his play.
Those four players accounted for a majority of Denver penalties. The remainder were scattered across the offense, with no player having more than 4 and with few interesting patterns among the penalties.
Year to Year
Last year, Denver had 54 penalties. League-wide there was basically no change in the number of penalties called from last year to this one, so Denver saw a tiny comparative improvement. Last year holding (20) and false starts (23) were most of the penalties called against Denver. This year it was pretty much the same with holding (17) and false starts (19) similar year over year.
Denver did see an increase in illegal formation penalties. This has a significantly different cause than last years. Last year a combination of injuries and poor coaching frequently left the offense lost, with formations a struggle. Denver was rarely penalized for this because officials try to not penalize being bad at football, even if it does technically break the rules. This year Sean Payton used and coached with a lot of offensive tricks and weird formations. These types of alignments are far more likely to draw flags, because even with the conduct is the same, officials correctly see the offense trying to game the system for advantage. Ultimately the impact was relatively small, but not surprising.
Also not surprising was that Denver had fewer delay of game penalties. In fact, Denver had no delay of game penalties that were accidental, unlike last year when they had six accepted delays of game.
In the aggregate, this year was pretty unsurprising for Denver offensively, at least from an officiating perspective. Courtland Sutton drew a few more offensive pass interference penalties than he might have expected. The league could have thrown more intentional grounding penalties, but they really dislike enforcing that rule. But mostly, players produced in very tight alignment with their historical tendencies, and Denver was a decidedly average team.
There are three players from the Denver offense I am very interested to watch next year. One is Brandon Johnson. I felt that he suffered rather egregiously from bad officiating this season with penalties but especially with spots. While he has no guarantee to make the team next year, I am interested to see if the officials continue to see elements of his game to dislike. The second is Lloyd Cushenberry. He is a pending free agent, but if he returns to Denver, I would love to try and figure out why he draws so many false starts.
Finally, I want to watch more Courtland Sutton. Its really a joy to watch big and capable receivers blocking and going up for contested throws. Unlike the other two players, we are highly likely to get to see lots of Sutton next year.