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Penalty recap: Buffalo Bills gunning for worst in league

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The Chiefs remain the worst in the league with penalties, but the Bills are giving them a run for their money

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

When it comes to penalty performance, it’s safe to say that the Buffalo Bills did not rebound after an atrocious outing against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last week vs. Jacksonville the Bills were hit 13 times for 80 yards. This week they traveled to Miami to take on the Dolphins and were nailed with 13 penalties for 120 yards. After trending a little better than average last year, McDermott’s second-year Bills are far less than a Josh Allen stone’s throw away from being the worst in the league.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Count

Anyone who has followed me for any length of time knows that I’m usually very much on the side of the officials. That sentence you just read is called “foreshadowing.” I’m not even going to discuss the chart this week, I think the graphic speaks for itself. Shawn Hochuli and his crew will be the topic of the day.

Last week I defended Walt Coleman by pointing out that he and his crew have been calling less penalties than league average. This was used as evidence that his team doesn’t go looking to throw flags. Where does Shawn Hochuli land? His crew averages 4.62 penalties per game higher than the average. It’s generally not easy to find a crew that’s more than two away from average. Additionally, most crews are also usually pretty close to evenly split between home and away teams at this point in the year. Hochuli’s crew calls 1.89% fewer penalties per game than average on the home team. I know a 2% or so deviation doesn’t sound bad, but let’s back that up a second. This group calls more penalties than normal overall, but less than normal on the home team. That means ALL of the extra penalties they call are directed at the visiting team. So far this year they’ve called 14 more penalties on visitors than the home team. To compare, the difference between home and away for Coleman’s crew is two. I’m usually 100% behind the refs, but objective data does not support Hochuli’s crew being a fair one.

Penalty Yards

High counts lead to high yards and that’s most of the story for us this week. The Bills wiped out a surprisingly small amount of yardage (19 to be exact). There’s a silver lining I guess. With only 15 yards on top of the assessed, Miami came out in pretty good shape in that department too.

Penalty Harm

Miami Dolphins

To cover a couple things in more depth, I’ll be skipping the chatter on a good deal of penalties this week. Feel free to drop a comment and ask about your favorite flag! Most of the yellow laundry tossed at the Dolphins was pretty straightforward. Four holding calls on offense was due in large part to the line trying to make sure Ryan Tannehill was able to leave the stadium under his own power. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s defensive pass interference was the worst of the day. That 14-yarder also gave the Bills two extra downs for 3.4 Harm.

Alright then, let’s check in on our ole’ pal Kiko Alonso.

Kiko Alonso has laid down some cheap shots. This wasn’t one of them. The call on the field was the new rule “lowering the head to initiate contact.” The last couple weeks I’ve heard it referred to repeatedly as “helmet to helmet.” This misunderstanding is problematic for the spirit of this rule. Lowering the head is a penalty no matter where the helmet contacts. Hit a thigh? Same penalty.

The NFL knows that helmets are gonna hit stuff though, so that’s where the lowering the head part comes into play. You’ve likely heard the NFL preach about “heads up” tackling for years. Lowering the head results in leading with the helmet and a higher chance of hitting with the helmet first. This is problematic for both parties. The new penalty is intended to encourage “heads up” play by punishing hits that aren’t.

Alonso does dip his head slightly but it’s only obvious when slowed down or paused. His body remains upright. He doesn’t launch. He does hit helmet-to-helmet, but unless the person getting hit has special protection (quarterbacks, defenseless receiver, etc.) that’s not a penalty. There’s no blanket “helmet-to-helmet” rule. At full speed there’s a good debate that Isaiah McKenzie hasn’t established himself to the point of being able to “ward off” a defender. But that’s a different penalty. At the very least they called the wrong foul. Personally, I think this shouldn’t have been called at all.

The Miami Dolphins ended up a little on the side of a bad day when it comes to total Harm. At 14.4 Harm, there’s a few things you’d like clean up.

Buffalo Bills

For the most part, the Bills’ penalties didn’t cause a ton of damage—individually at least. Jordan Phillips’s taunting penalty gave up a down and half-the-distance to the goal. Rafael Bush’s roughing-the-passer flag gave up a down in addition to the 15 yards. Robert Foster’s illegal block negated a first down and three yards.

Wyatt Teller had a rough day. He ended up with three flags, with a false start being the least problematic. One holding call wiped out a three-yard gain or 1.3 Harm. The other wiped out five yards. And oh yeah, a touchdown. As a refresher since they’re rare, taking points off the board gets assessed at a 1:1 ration with harm. Touchdowns are credited as seven points due to the nearly automatic nature of the extra point. That gives us 10 assessed yards + 5 yards negated + 7 points = 8.5 Harm. The Bills got the points back, but these penalties are potential killers.

Let’s talk more about Hochuli’s crew through the lens of Matt Milano’s defensive pass interference.

Arguably Milano does make some contact, which the official was in good position to see. As the graphic indicates, the pull and turn from Mike Gesicki should have been just as obvious. Making things worse, all players on the defense are considered eligible receivers. They have as much right to the ball as anyone on offense. Milano is not only stride-for-stride with Gesicki, he’s running the route ahead of Gesicki. While Milano turns to look for the ball a little later than the tight end does, he’s playing the ball by virtue of running the route. Last but not least, the rule does not prohibit contact. It only prohibits an act that “significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball.”

The Bills finished with 23.9 Harm. That score is the highest of the year for the Bills, ahead of the Chicago Bears game’s 23.8. It’s the Bills’ fifth game over 20 Harm and sixth game over ten. They’ve had a few clean games but overall it’s been a really rough year.