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Buffalo Bills penalties at the quarter-season mark: a brief history

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In our eternal quest to compare coaches, how do the last three stack up at the quarter season mark

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

There is no disputing that the Buffalo Bills of today are performing at a higher level than the Bills of yesteryear. Head coach Sean McDermott’s no-nonsense approach and emphasis on fundamentals and discipline are heralded as the primary reason. These characteristics seem easy to correlate to penalty performance, which are often attributable to breakdowns in football fundamentals. But does this idea truly hold merit? Or are penalties somewhat independent of the coach?

With these questions in mind, I sought to compare the quarter-mark penalty results for each of our last three coaches. To do this, I compiled the assessed count and yards through four games for this season and each of the last four. This will allow us to compare Sean McDermott’s efforts with those of Rex Ryan and Doug Marrone.

Penalty Count

What to look for:

  • Each bar on the graph corresponds to a year and a coach through their first four games.
  • The line represents the league average for the year in question, which allows us a few other comparisons.
  • You’ll note Rex has three bars. The striped one is actually just a fun throw in. There was a lot of talk about how silly the wrist band plan was, and coincidentally they occurred right after week four. I’ve dived into the impact he had before, and this helps bring that to light.

The Stories: League trends have trended up within this time span. They’ve gone from just over 6, to “about 7” to today where they currently sit at a little over 7. To be fair to this year, it’s not complete yet and I expect them to trend back down a bit.

I lead with the league trends, because it’s clear McDermott has had the best start to the season of the three coaches. Compared to Rex year two it’s not a whole lot though.

Factoring in the league rates though makes Marrone look worse, as his peers performed better than Rex’s and McD’s peers. Similarly, McDermott is coming in under his peers by a tad, whereas Rex’s year two was above the peer mark.

The conclusion is that, McDermott has made small gains compared to Rex year 2 (so far). Both McD and Rex year 2 were improved upon Marrone’s efforts.

Rex’s first year was off to a disastrous start and there’s zero comparison with how he set off and either other coach’s quarter mark results. I include the post wrist band results to show that drastic turnaround is possible. Marrone’s results are actually pretty close to how he ended the year each season. Rex year 1 had a major “about face” and the discrepancy between pre- and post-wrist bands illustrates how drastic it was. Note the similarity to his year 2 (where he actually improved even more). Once it was a priority, Rex actually made tremendous strides in fixing the issue.

Yardage

The Stories: League trends in yardage are a good mirror for count. Marrone’s two years had the best behaved peers with low to mid-50s in yardage. Rex’s years were high 50s and so far this year McDermott’s peers are averaging just over 60 yards in penalties a game. This means the same logic applies here as it did above.

McDermott comes out even cleaner here as the victor, with the same disclaimer as before: This year’s results aren’t final. I anticipate the league rate to fall below 60, but probably not by a ton (so similar to Rex’s years).

Marrone’s efforts were well above the rates the league ended at to start both seasons. To say Rex year 1 was off to a bad start is an understatement. It might not come through as well as I’d like, but that’s 107 yards of penalties PER GAME. And that’s only assessed yards, not yards affected or True Yardage as I call it. Breaking it down after the wrist bands, that’s about 40 yards per game difference. Craziness.

Rex year 2 was pretty comparable to Marrone in a vacuum, but again I’ll point out that Rex was closer to league rates than Marrone was. Rex year 2 (his good year) was 10 yards above league rates. Marrone’s better year was 17 yards above. McDermott sits at almost 6 under.

With count I’d say McD has a small edge on Rex. With yardage, there’s a clear improvement. This suggest penalties are of a less severe type on average.

Penalty Harm

This is where I can’t make a graph or chart that shows anything useful. I only have consistent data for this year and last.

Harm takes into account yardage more than count and it’s safe to say then, that it is likely Marrone and Rex year 1 wouldn’t have come out ahead of McDermott’s efforts or Rex’s year 2.

I do have some prior information as one of my test games was the infamous Giants game Rex’s first year. That game came out to be 39.6 Cumulative Harm. Keep that number in mind for a second. Also, if you’ve been following me, feel free to cringe.

Logically, it would seem that Rex’s year 2 (his good year) should be a decent amount more harmful than McD’s based on the large gap in assessed yards. However, the intent with harm is to gauge a large variety of factors including yards negated and opportunities lost.

Last year, Rex’s team ended the first quarter of the season with 42.9 Harm. That’s all four games. It comes out to 10.73 per game. (Now go and revisit that Giants game...yuck.)

McDermott, through the quarter mark has had 40.1 harm. That comes out to 10.03 Harm per game. It’s safe to say there’s a difference, but it’s a pretty small gap all things considered. Now obviously we all know which stat I’m biased toward. If there’s interest, I can dive into some reasons why this is closer than anticipated. I can break it down by impacted yards, downs given/negated, etc. and paint a clearer picture.

Ultimately though, the reason the team looks so much better is not due to this aspect of team performance and if there’s one thing we can all agree on, here’s more reason to be thankful Marrone didn’t stick around.