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Penalties and the 2017 Buffalo Bills run game

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Running game woes; does The King in Yellow bear some of the burden?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

A hot topic this week has been the woeful state of the Buffalo Bills running game. Coming from lofty heights the last two years, the plummet of this year’s squad is especially noticeable. One of the least controversial statements among fans is probably this one: Without a solid run game, our offense isn’t likely to make any noise.

So what’s the deal? Has Tyrod Taylor been exposed? Is LeSean McCoy getting old? Is Rick Dennison terrible? Some combination of the above? Perhaps, could penalties be playing a part? There’s only one of these questions I’m qualified to answer.

True Yards

I’ve used this term a lot in penalty recaps and I study it for a reason. Today, that reason becomes abundantly clear. This stat accounts for not only the yards assessed by the ref, but the yards impacted (like a negated run). For this dive, we’ll be exploring the world of offensive penalties, with a major focus on offensive holding. I won’t actually discuss assessed yards, as these remain mostly static based on penalty type.

So then, what we need to look at are the yards called back due to penalty. Here’s a chart:

Let this serve as our launching point. This chart compares the total yards negated by offensive penalties per game between this year and last. This year, the team is wiping out just under 30 yards per game via offensive penalty. Rex Ryan’s squad was less than half that amount. But that’s in total, and we want to know about just the run game.

Offensive Holding

This one shows the same idea, but removes yards from all penalties other than offensive holding. The gap widens even further here. At 21 yards negated due to holds (per game mind you), the 2017 Bills have about three times the problem with this penalty than the 2016 Bills did.

If you’re curious about totals, Rex’s team had 216 yards negated by offensive penalty in 2016. Of that, 118 was on offensive holding calls. I’ll discuss the other 98 in a second. This year, we’ve had 149 yards total called back on offense and 105 have been from holding calls. This means that the 2017 Bills are negating yards at a much higher rate than last year. Not only that, but holding has been disproportionately problematic which is one reason for the focus.

The other reason for the focus is this: Of the 98 yards that were not on holding calls with Rex’s team, a mere TWO of those yards came on running plays. Of the Bills 44 “not-holding” call yards, 12 have hurt run plays. So for “not-holding” penalties it’s a pretty clear skewing of the problem toward the passing game and that’s not what we want. So if the chart above shows yards negated due to holding, the only thing left is to see how much of those yards specifically impact the run game.

Offensive Holding and the Run Game

Before I do the chart, here’s a couple fast facts. Rex’s team had 24 holding calls on offense last year. 17 of these impacted yards. Of the 17 where yards were impacted, 13 were on run plays. It’s my belief that holding naturally skews toward running and scrambling plays and this bears that out. With that premise in mind, let’s look at a chart that compares the two years, based strictly on how many running yards per game were wiped out due to Holding calls.

HOLY [EXPLETIVE]!

Those 13 run plays last year only negated 53 rushing yards for the team, resulting in about 3.3 yards negated per game. So not really that big of a factor in the run game.

This year though...oh hell...

This year, all eight holding calls on offense have negated yards (though three of these were 3 yards or less). Of these 8 calls that impacted yards, ALL OF THEM have been on rushing plays or Taylor scrambles. The Bills are losing out on 21 yards per game of rushing offense. Remember, this is solely as a result of offensive holding calls.

What’s the Impact?

Rushing Yards Per Game

This is the yards per game difference between last year and this year’s team. That’s 164 compared to 107; or nearly 57 yards difference. Now let’s take a look at what they measured pre-penalty adjustment.

Last year’s team gets a tiny bump to about 167 yards per game. This years jumps way up to 127. The running game is about 40 yards per game off of last year’s trend. Still a sizable gap, but it closes to the tune of 17 yards, which is a pretty big deal.

Now, I don’t have this available league wide so this is some guesswork, but Rex’s team last year was near perfectly average by every measure I’ve examined. I would wager that his 3.3 negated rushing yards per game is closer to the truth than this year’s 21.

Currently, Buffalo sits in 17th place in yards per game. If we adjusted all teams by the 3.3 trend and Buffalo by their 21 trend, they’d narrowly edge out the Dallas Cowboys for 8th best. That’s a big swing. Even if I guess more conservatively and say teams might average 10 yards negated by holding per game, it would still give them a jump of five spots.

Efficiency

This is likely the scariest metric of all. Last year’s Bills had nearly two more yards per carry than this year’s squad. Last year’s rushing attack was dynamic not only because of volume, but as a result of the absurd efficiency for a “one-dimensional” offense. If we adjust based on penalties...

There’s still a sizable gap, but the Bills come back up to respectable levels. Currently they’re 29th in efficiency which is atrocious. This single adjustment would place them 11 spots higher.

Conclusion

There’s essentially zero question in my mind. Offensive Holding calls are killing the run game. They’re taking yards off the board at an alarmingly high rate overall (three times worse than last year). More importantly, they’re hurting the under-performing rushing attack more than 6 times as bad as last year’s team was.

I left out one thing you might be wondering about. Are they committing MORE of these penalties than last year? Not really. As mentioned, they had 24 Holding calls on offense last year. This year they’re on pace for 25.6. It’s an increase, but barely. This problem is almost entirely attributable to a drastic skewing of when they’re happening. A significantly higher number of these calls are occurring after big run plays. The eight holding calls are wiping out an average of over 13 yards each time they occur.

Efficiency metrics strongly suggest there are other issues. I do think there are other valid critiques. The conclusion can’t be that Holding Penalties are the entire problem. It’s safe to say they are a big part of the issue, however.