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Penalty recap: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills

Another day of mostly mistake free football coincides with a Bills victory

The Buffalo Bills implemented phase 1 of operation “get to the darn playoffs already” by handling the Miami Dolphins within the friendly confines of New Era Field. Before the Bills face some familiar foes for phases 2 and 3, let’s take a look and see how well they avoided yellow flags against the Fins. Don’t worry, there’s enough data this week for the charts to make their triumphant return.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Count and True Count

Count = number assessed. True count = number assessed + number declined/offset

If you’d like to know what an average day looks like, then give thanks for the Miami Dolphins. The league now sits at precisely eight flags thrown per team each game (right hand columns), which is where Miami landed. The Dolphins had a completely normal amount assessed, as well. On the year, Miami is trending a little higher than average, so this is a decent day for them.

The charts speak for the Bills, who had a fantastic day regarding count. And if you don’t mind some foreshadowing, this should have been an even better day. The Buffalo Bills are on the right side of average on the year, but even still, we can chalk this one up as a good day at the office.

The Bills landed Jerome Boger’s crew this week. Boger’s crew trends a little towards lenient, with 6.3 flags per team usually thrown. Interestingly, Boger has a perfectly even distribution of flags between home and visiting teams. This suggests Buffalo’s clean day was no mirage based on available trend data.

Yards and True Yards

Yards = Yards assessed. True yards = Yards assessed + Yards negated by penalty

Both teams find themselves with the same story to tell with assessed yards. Miami’s nearly perfectly average day is met with a nearly perfect average yardage assessment. Buffalo’s doesn’t scale as perfectly. They came in decisively under half in terms of count, but are right around half in assessed yards. This could suggest a slight skewing toward more severe penalties, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

Buffalo didn’t negatively impact any gained yards on the day. Miami ended up negating 12 positive yards, for a total field change of 72 yards on the day due to penalty.

Penalty Harm

Miami Dolphins

The Stories: There’s quite a few boo-boos we can dismiss pretty easily. Cameron Malveaux had the sole declined penalty for Miami. His offside failed to prevent a LeSean McCoy touchdown and the Bills elected to keep the points. Laremy Tunsil’s false start is the usual 5 yards. Ndamukong Suh was called for offside, which was also yardage only. Alterraun Verner and his defensive holding came on a scramble where Tyrod Taylor already had the first down.

An interesting thing to note with these charts is that they tend to sort chronologically. It’s interesting to note the change from boo-boo to “uh oh” penalties. Suh’s penalty came at the end of the third quarter. Landry’s penalties were in the fourth, before the Dolphins scored their touchdown and things were looking pretty grim.

Speaking of Jarvis Landry, both his penalties were on the same play. The pass interference wiped out a 12-yard gain and tacked on the extra 10. Then he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play ended. He took it from 1st and 10 on the Buffalo 40 yard line to 1st and 35 on the Miami 23. You’d likely not be shocked to hear that Miami ended up punting on that drive, when they sorely needed points. Combined, the penalties hit 3.7 Harm.

Mike Hull was called for unnecessary roughness (late hit on Brandon Tate during a return). This was the yardage only, but 15 always hurts.

On third and 13 later in the drive, the Dolphins had managed the stop. Xavien Howard was hit with illegal hands to the face, which gave the Bills a fresh set of downs to keep burning clock.

Miami’s total comes in at 10.2 Harm. This isn’t a terribly rough day in the penalty department, though there’s a couple I bet they’d like back.

Buffalo Bills

The Stories: The Bills had two penalties declined, which represent their only boo-boos. Vladimir Ducasse was called for the dreaded offensive holding, but the Dolphins declined the penalty, as they had just stopped the Bills’ drive. Ryan Groy’s false start might have changed Sean McDermott’s play call if it was accepted. They were 4th and goal at the 1, and by all accounts they were going to try to put a nail in an aquatic mammal-shaped coffin. Jordan Mills made sure McDermott didn’t have to agonize about going for it on 4th and goal at the 6th, however, so Groy does receive a pass.

Mills was caught with some extracurricular activity on the play noted above and was hit with a 15-yarder for unsportsmanlike conduct. 4th and 16 was not ideal to convert, and the Bills walked away with three points after electing to kick the field goal instead.

Deon Lacey had a rare horse collar tackle called, which only hurt to the tune of 13 yards. Combined with a really bad sequence by the Bills, this put Miami in prime position to score their only touchdown of the game.

From the Buffalo 10, Colton Schmidt hit a not-so-great 42 yard punt. The coverage team allowed a 26-yard return, and the penalty on Lacey added 13 yards to the end of that. If you’re math inclined, that means the punt netted 3 yards in field position change. I’m not saying punting was a bad call. They regret the result, not the decision.

The Bills still managed to stop the Fins on 4th and goal from the 1. It was 4-down territory, but it would only need one more play to ice them. That’s when Adolphus Washington decided to strip the ball from Kenyan Drake when he was roughly 42 yards out of bounds. This led to an unsportsmanlike conduct call. It’s recorded by traditional measures as 0 yards, which would never even be a blip on the penalty radar. We have penalty harm though, and the 3 extra tries it gave the Dolphins was the worst of the day for the team at 3.0 Harm.

The Bills end up with a paltry 5.8 Harm, which is a tremendous day.


No stat will ever perfectly capture what happened, and this week’s penalty harm falls a bit short in my opinion. The Bills had a great game, even considering my enhanced measurements. However, two penalties were of the “why the hell would you do that” variety. Without these, they’d have had two fewer flags thrown, and one less penalty assessed.

More importantly, we’ll never know if McDermott would have gone for it on 4th and 6 (though I’d guess not, but it’s a possibility). That’s a possible swing of 4 points. Washington’s flag swung some momentum. Maybe the Dolphins would have scored anyway on their next try, but who knows. For the record, the next play after the penalty was an incomplete pass. Two very bad ideas, in full game context, may have altered the final score by 11 points. It was a solid win regardless, but in a close game, you’d hate to see these be the difference.