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Penalties make it tough to watch NFL special teams

There’s a reason why we often feel special teams have a penalty on every play, but it’s not because it’s true

A comment I’ve seen a number of times goes something like this: “It seems like the Buffalo Bills have a penalty on every special teams play.” There are two facets to this statement that excite the inner penalty nerd inside an incredibly small fraction all of us. Firstly, the suggestion is that the Bills are worse than other teams. Naturally, we have to explore that. Secondly, if it seems so bad for the Bills, how bad is it for the league? We’ll explore that, too. A disclaimer here: due to the relatively low amount of available data, the following is based on the best information that could be found, but it falls short of perfect accuracy.

Buffalo vs. The League

League-wide, offensive snaps account for 44% of penalties. About 39% of all penalties occur on defense, and 17% on special teams, which is our area of interest. This data includes only accepted counts, as that’s the best league-wide data.

The Bills had 45% of their penalties on offense and 41% on defense. That leaves 14% for special teams. If anything, the Bills had fewer penalties by phase of game than the league average, though this is slight. Essentially, the Bills’ penalty distribution by phase of game is almost perfectly normal. So far, there’s no red flags about the Bills’ yellow flag “problem.”

Distribution is fun, but what we really should look at is frequency or rates. Our perception is likely tied to how often penalties occur in relation to the number of opportunities or plays.

The Bills’ rate might shock you. They had 15 assessed penalties on the year in this phase of the game, which is tied for 8th-best in the league. They had 437 special teams snaps. In other words, they had one penalty for every 29 plays. In a second, you’ll see that this is pretty good, but for now know that there’s no evidence to suggest it’s a Bills problem.

A league-wide issue

If it’s not a Bills-only thing, then we should wonder if it’s a league-wide issue. Some starting rates:

  • On offense, there’s one penalty every 21.8 plays
  • On defense, there’s one penalty every 24.5 plays
  • On Special teams, there’s one penalty every 23.1 plays.

It’s notable that the special teams rate isn’t too far out of whack with the other phases of the game. There must be something more at work to make special teams seem so much worse. While penalty frequency is a complaint common to the entirety of the game, fan sentiment seems to be that there’s skewing toward special teams.

Here’s a thing to ponder: if you’re like me, some plays barely stick out, and likely fall through the memory cracks. Plays like extra points, field goals, and touchbacks are good examples, as they’re closer to footnotes than full-on 11 vs. 11 action. The premise here is that some special teams plays don’t FEEL like plays at all. This leaves us with an altered perception of how many special teams plays actually occur. The hypothesis is this: if the memorable plays have higher penalty rates than the footnotes, it would drive the feeling that special teams are inundated with penalties.

Let’s dig into the numbers. There were 6,346 special teams snaps (extra points, field goals, kickoffs and punts counted) in the 2017 NFL regular season. Of these, there were 1,134 extra points attempted and 1,027 FGs. There were 1,144 touchbacks on 1,941 kickoffs. The best number located for fair catches puts us at 657 on the year. The data on this isn’t clear on whether it includes the postseason, however, so we’ll call it 600 to be on the safe side.

Using the numbers above, we’re left with 2,441 snaps of what I’d call “memorable special teams plays” which are mainly returned kicks and punts. Ideally, we would be able to obtain accurate distribution data for the various play types, but sadly, this data is difficult to find league-wide. Fortunately, the master Penalty Harm Book makes it a breeze to come up with a tally for the Bills’ season (and opponents). While this leaves us with only 33 data points (about 5% of penalties on special teams), it’s the best estimate we’re likely to find. This is what we end up with:

What the chart shows is that 67% of all special teams penalties in the Bills’ 2017 season occurred on the plays we’re interested in analyzing. Using this data to extrapolate across the league and come up with rates, we’re looking at:

  • One penalty every 23.1 special teams snap (as noted above)
  • One penalty every 43 snaps for our “footnote” plays (XPs, FGs, etc.)
  • One penalty every 13 snaps for punts and kickoffs that result in a return


Of course there’s not a flag on every special teams play, but it is somewhat surprising to see the overall rate right in the neighborhood of the offense and defense. Technically speaking, what this means is that special teams penalties don’t occur any more frequently than offensive or defensive penalties do.

This isn’t to say fans are “wrong,” however. Special teams are unique in that less than half of plays under this umbrella have the same level of action or drama as offensive or defensive snaps. As such, fans may be prone to banking only certain plays in their memory under their perception of what special teams entails. More importantly, when adjusting as we did above, there’s a significant skewing of penalties that would indeed support the feeling that some play types are significantly worse off in the penalty department. In that regard, then, the fans have had it right all along.

Don’t forget that the Bills are better than league-average when it comes to penalties on special teams. So if you think we have it rough, just remember plenty of teams see even higher rates of special teams penalties than the Bills do.

Data courtesy of: