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2018 Buffalo Bills team penalty recap

How did the Buffalo Bills do as a team with penalties in the 2018 season?

Another season is in the books, which means we need another in-depth way to look at penalties. How did the Buffalo Bills do as a team when it comes to flags? The masses yearn for answers, and man do we have some! Before we dive in though, I’d like to thank for their unrivaled access to the information I need for these posts.

Penalty Count

For a good chunk of this recap, I thought it would be intriguing to compare the 2018 Buffalo Bills to not only the league rates, but also the 2017 Buffalo Bills. League averages for both years are included so we can see how the league shifted as well.

When comparing this year’s assessed penalties for the Bills to the rest of the league, it’s not good. While the per-game rates don’t come across as terrible at 0.55 above the norm, it’s fifth-worst in the league. Arguably, the true or total flags better-represents penalty tendency. The Bills are still sixth-worst in the league with that measure.

Before we compare the Bills’ two seasons, note that the league rates went up slightly for both assessed and true counts by 0.1 flags per game. There are two important considerations for this information. First, playoffs tend to lower the rate slightly, so the gap could lessen between the two league years in the coming weeks. Second, the increase is not enough to explain the increase in the Bills’ rates.

For the Bills, in both measures they increased more than a full penalty per game. Last year’s team was actually better-than-average when it comes to penalties, making the jump even more glaring.

Penalty yards

Yardage—the second half of traditional metrics—shows similar patterns to the count data above. The 2017 Bills performed better than league average when it came to assessed yards. They also did much better than the 2018 Bills. This year’s team remains fifth-worst in the league using this metric.

For negated yards, both years for the Bills were about the same with 18.53 negated yards in 2017 and 17.75 yards per game this season. While that doesn’t change the findings from everything else, the silver lining is that they weren’t wiping out more positive gains than last year.

Penalty harm

I thought it’d be fun to show some of the more hidden data points that go into penalty harm. A lot of discussion focuses on yardage (assessed and negated) but there’s plenty of other talking points built into harm.

Negated turnovers are quite rare, with only one per season and fortunately both on an opponent.

Negated points aren’t incredibly common either but if you wanted a quick look, here you go. In both years, the Bills negated a touchdown. In 2018, Kyle Williams negated an opponent’s extra point which is assessed as negative harm or a “good” thing. In better news, opponents wiped out more points than the Bills in both years.

For downs, this is the sum of how many free downs were given to an opposing offense (ex: from defensive holding), or downs negated (ex: from offensive holding). In both years, the Bills impacted more downs than their opponents. The gap was a good deal wider in 2018.

Harm rating is shown two ways. The entire season is there for fun, with the per-game rate likely more relevant. As a home brew stat that’s still fairly fluid when it comes to interpretation, I’ve been indicating that 10.0 per game is the cut-off between good and bad. While that’s not a bad translation, using the two latest seasons of data and considering league data, it brings up the question of why the 2017 Bills are in the range of “bad” when they performed better than league average using standard metrics. It is possible that an above-average team in counts/yards could be worse in harm if, for example, they gave up a high rate of first downs. Without data league-wide, though, it’s very difficult to truly set a line. The idea that teams should aim for under ten is probably a great conclusion from the last few years of data, but it’s possible that 10.5 or thereabouts might be the better average score.

Penalties by phase

One of the more common musings I see is how each phase of the team is doing when it comes to penalties. From the look of the chart it would appear that the offense is really, really bad. Looking at league frequencies though, the Bills are pretty typical in counts by phase. If anything, special teams is the “problem.” The league rate for offense is 58% and 11% for special teams. For the math-minded, that means the Bills’ defense is nearly perfectly average and the offense is a little bit low.

The rest of the data is there for fun, but without league-wide data it’s hard to put into context.

Penalties by type

The holiday season might be over, but I have a gift for the avid penalty followers. That’s right, a sortable chart for penalties by type (it works best in desktop). Aw yeah!

Penalties by type

Penalty Count Assessed yards Yards affected Downs -/+ Points affected Sum of Harm
Penalty Count Assessed yards Yards affected Downs -/+ Points affected Sum of Harm
Def. pass int. 8 207 0 5 0 25.7
Face mask 1 0 0 0 0 0
False start 21 97 0 0 0 9.7
Illegal block above waist 8 80 39 2 0 13.9
Illegal formation 7 44 63 2 -1 11.7
Neutral Zone 5 20 0 4 0 6
Offside 7 30 0 0 0 3
Offensive holding 31 213 132 11 7 52.5
Off. pass int. 4 20 6 0 0 2.6
Unnecessary roughness 7 97 5 2 0 12.2
Unsportsmanlike conduct 1 15 0 0 0 1.5
Delay of game 3 15 0 0 0 1.5
Too many men on field 3 10 0 3 0 4
Roughing the passer 2 19 0 1 0 2.9
Defensive holding 12 44 9 8 0 13.3
Offside on free kick 1 5 0 0 0 0.5
Taunting 1 11 0 1 0 2.1
Illegal Blindside Block 1 15 0 0 0 1.5
Illegal Contact 2 5 0 0 0 0.5
Intentional Grounding 2 20 0 2 0 4
Illegal Shift 1 5 1 3 0 3.6
Illegal use of hands 2 15 16 2 0 5.1
Ineligible downfield pass 2 10 8 0 0 1.8
Out of bounds on kick 1 0 0 0 0 0
Disqualification 2 0 0 0 0 0
Tripping 1 0 0 0 0 0
Chop block 1 10 5 0 0 1.5

If you went ahead and sorted by count, offensive holding jumps right out at 31. Believe it or not, that’s only eighth-worst in the league. Still bad, but not terribly so. False start? Ninth worst. Defensive holding had the Bills tied for seventh-worst, and when it comes to defensive pass interference they’re tied for eleventh, which is middle of the pack. To compare a bit with pass interference, the league leader New Orleans Saints had 20. Unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties weren’t a significant problem. So how did the Bills end up closer to worst than first?

While none of the above types were terrible, a decent amount of pretty bad measures adds up. Also, the Bills had the highest volume of assessed illegal-formation penalties in the league. Chicago had one more called than the Bills, but had two declined. Toss in a few similar ones like illegal shift and ineligible downfield flags and they add up to a pre-snap issue on offense. Put that with a higher rate on special teams and you end up near the top of the charts.


Like most things in a league built on parity, there’s not a lot that separates one side of a fence from the other. The 2018 Buffalo Bills really weren’t a far cry from their 2017 counterparts. Pre-snap penalties on offense and a higher-than-normal rate of flags on special teams pulled them from a little better than average to fifth-worst. Many of the more problematic items for the Bills should be able to be cleaned up by having a more steady offseason and tinkering less with lineups. As an example, hitting the league average on illegal formation penalties would have lowered the Bills’ per-game rate to 6.93 penalties. That’s more than halfway back to being average.