Man, that Tom Brady! He gets all the calls. Sure seems like it anyway, right? One of the more prevailing thoughts on penalties is that elite Quarterbacks have more calls go in their favor than the “scrubs.” But does this really hold true?
NFLPenalties.com examined this for roughing the passer flags earlier this year. If you can believe it, Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed to get the most calls his way (as of this offseason). Per the same analysis, “Tom Brady...languishes decidedly middle of the pack.” Not quite what most of us would expect.
Over the bye week, I decided to expand on this premise with a few case studies in an expanded penalty list.
All stats are from the 2016 Regular Season and include declined and offset penalties. If officials are biased they simply won’t throw flags, so the number tossed is more relevant than the number accepted.
I’ll cover each penalty with a “per game” and a “per pass attempts” model. It’s my belief that most fans process things at the “per game” level and that this is one bias of several that creates disconnects between what we think and reality. The pass attempt model is the one I consider more valid, however if you see one game where Brady gets a call his way, it’s easy to think it happens all the time.
I wanted to look at three elite quarterbacks and one not so elite. Naturally, Tom Brady is in since he’s always accused of benefiting via the refs. Aaron Rodgers sticks out as a truly elite QB. No one personifies “passing yardage” like Drew Brees. And since this is a Buffalo Bills blog and Tyrod Taylor is way on the other end of volume, he’s a good case study for our “non-elite.” Note: with only one year of data on only four QBs, this is hardly conclusive but there’s some fun takeaways anyway.
Offensive Pass Interference (OPI)
This is the only penalty which looks at the number committed by the teams in question.
For this chart, it’s better to be lower than league rates as it means you’re getting called less often. What’s interesting here is that the Pats with Brady in are indeed getting called way less often than you’d expect for a perfect distribution. Similarly, Aaron Rodgers seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt. Brees and Taylor really throw a wrench in the narrative, however. Brees is not seeing generous reffing, and for some reason Taylor is. It could be his low passing volume...
Passes per OPI
This will be wacky, and I can explain why I did this if needed, but flip the “good” part of each table between game and pass models. The chart shows how many passes are thrown on average before an OPI is called, and as a result it’s better to be above the yellow this time.
Brady still comes out great here. In fact only one OPI flag was thrown while Brady was in at quarterback all regular season (12 games). Rodgers still looks good, and only had two thrown in 16 games. Brees still disrupts things a bit, but comes closer to average. With pass attempts considered, Taylor’s part of the story reverses course. As a non-elite QB he is indeed seeing a higher rate of these than average (barely).
There could be some merit here. While Brees is a prolific passer, he’s on a mediocre team that’s only that “good” because he throws for a zillion yards per season. With the Saints struggling to stay relevant, the concept of “good teams get all the breaks” isn’t really dispelled by using Brees as an example.
The biggest dilemma here is the small sample size and distributions. The worst team in the league had only 8 of these. If we did the full Patriots regular season, they had 3 which puts them in pretty normal company. Though it does mean the subs were called for twice as many as Brady in only a third of the games.
And if we look at the worst three offenders (Houston, Philly and Seattle) there’s at least one other star quarterback who isn’t getting a break. If there’s anything to this, it really might be a “Brady thing.” Whether that’s preferential treatment or “solid football” will have to remain a debate.
Defensive Pass Interference
From here on out, these are calls the team benefited from rather than committed.
Since now we’re talking beneficiary, you want to be ABOVE league rates here. It’s better to see more pass interference calls from your opponent than league average. This chart would seem to completely bust the narrative. Not a single one of the elite three are seeing more DPIs per game than normal. Our non-elite QB also does better than two of the elites.
Pass attempts per DPI
I’ll apologize again for wackiness. Below league rates is good, as that means there are less passes between seeing a call go your way. Taylor and Rodgers start to approach average, but still see these calls less often than the average quarterback. Brady and (especially) Brees are seeing far worse rates than league average.
The narrative is completely busted here. None of the elite QBs are seeing the benefit of the doubt when it comes to pass interference calls. The average QB will be bailed out by a DPI about every 60 pass attempts. Poor Drew Brees only saw them once every 168. Tom Brady saw one flag out of every 108 passes. To demonstrate the full range, Derek Carr saw one flag every 28 pass attempts, which is about twice as often as average and good for best in the league.
You wanna be above again and all of our QBs are. Now, defensive holding isn’t always on passing plays, so this is a little less compelling than DPI. However, all three of our elites are seeing more than normal. Brees is close to average, but still above. As Rodgers benefits more than Brees and Brady benefits most of all, this does coincide with star power. The only thing going against the grain is Taylor (again). As a clear non-elite he shouldn’t even be close to this group but he’s neck-and-neck with Brees.
Passes per Hold
Here you’d like to be below. Like the chart for DPI, this tracks the number of passes between seeing one of these called in your favor. Brady and Rodgers are decently under, with Brady seeing a Defensive Holding Call once every 30(ish) passes, which is about twice as often as average. This again mirrors our star power trend from above. But Brees is still a bit wacky in how close to normal he is. This suggests that either elites aren’t getting the benefit of the doubt on the whole, or the league-wide bias doesn’t include him.
Taylor’s oddity only increases here. The Bills, with Taylor at QB, are seeing more defensive holding calls than they ought to. While New Orleans’ and their mediocrity might explain why Rodgers and Brady get the call more often than Brees, this logic doesn’t hold up when comparing Taylor to Brees.
Defensive Holding Conclusion
Maybe there’s a little bias here, but Taylor is a thorn in the side of the narrative yet again. Interestingly, rating teams by who benefited most, the top ten includes Brady, Rivers, Palmer, Rodgers, Luck, Smith, Big Ben, and Dalton. It also includes Bortles and whatever Houston was up to last year at QB. Still though, that’s pretty heavy weighting toward the good quarterbacks.
The bottom ten’s best QBs would be Newton, Prescott, and Flacco.
There does seem to be some star power trend for this penalty with a few oddballs like Taylor thrown in.
Roughing the Passer
Like before, being above is better. Not that you want your QB to get hit more. You just want it CALLED more. Of our sample, Brady is definitively the lowest, and nearly perfectly average. Brees finally comes out on top here, seeing a very high rate of this penalty. Rodgers is getting this call quite a bit. Even before accounting for pass attempts, Taylor is getting a good number of these as well. Let’s finish the dive...
Passes per Roughing
Last reminder, lower is good here. Brady slips to the “bad” side of things, though slightly. Rodgers is still comfortably getting this in his favor. Shockingly, Taylor edges out Brees slightly. Both are seeing this call quite a bit more frequently than expected. But the biggest edge in this penalty is to our only “non-elite.” For every 109 dropbacks, Taylor is getting a free 15. That’s TWICE as often as Brady does.
Roughing the Passer Conclusion
I’m not sure what else someone might need on this one. When Taylor is getting the benefit of the doubt on anything twice as often as Brady, I don’t see how you can conclude bias. You might say “well he runs more often than Brady.” While that’s true, this penalty goes away when the QB has turned into a runner. That’s the reason why Cam Newton has had some no-calls he was less than pleased with.
You want more proof there’s no bias? Check out this page at NFLpenalties.com and sort it any way you like. There’s a few flaws with the table, but note that this year Smith and Cutler have seen these the most. Cousins, Flacco, and Brees benefited the most from roughing calls last year. 2015 was oddly Brees, Rodgers, and Brady which does fit the narrative, but if you look at lifetime totals by passing attempts it’s RGIII, Josh McCown, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Not quite the league’s superstars.
Offensive pass interference shows a bit of evidence that Brady is getting the benefit of the doubt, but not elites in general. Defensive holding shows a decent amount of support for good to elite QBs seeing an increased rate. From those two alone you might conclude there’s some bias.
However, defensive pass interference didn’t have a single one of the elite QBs showing an increased benefit. In fact, the three elites were moderately to severely worse than average. Roughing the passer was a mixed bag, but Brady getting average rates is as close to a death knell for the idea as you can get with a single case study.
To me, the most striking thing coincidentally happens to be our Bills-centric reference point. You’ll have a hard time selling me on the idea that there’s bias in favor of the middle-of-the-road QB in a small market, thoroughly mediocre team. Yet Taylor sits there, right in the thick of the elites using the measures above.