Just like a warm breeze signals the coming of spring, the first inklings of penalty data are a harbinger of football season. As we’ve done for a couple years now, let’s take a look at some penalty-nerd stuff and see if we can make some predictions on how the 2019 Buffalo Bills season will go down when it comes to yellow laundry.
Penalties can be a bit volatile, but the small looks I’ve done suggest that team stability can decrease this to some extent. This includes coaching stability where Pete Carroll remains the poster child. Despite roster turnover being a pretty standard thing, Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks have shown some tendency to resist change. I know, I know. I always use Carroll as the example. This year let’s add Mike Tomlin to the list. Since 2009 (when NFLPenalties.com goes back to, thanks as always for the data), the Pittsburgh Steelers have had between 100 and 125 penalties in seven out of ten years.
That’s bad news for the Buffalo Bills—who were the sixth worst team in the league for penalties per game last year. The most significant coaching changes occurred on special teams, which only accounted for about 15% of penalties last season. You could look at 2017 for hope, when the Bills did better with many of the same coaches. However, offensive penalties are usually the bulk of flags. Rick Dennison’s squad had 46 flags to Brian Daboll’s 63. This was the primary difference between the 2017 Bills being alright with penalties vs. the 2018 Bills being bad. Hopefully another year in the scheme will help.
Players often are somewhat stable as well, so it’s fair to look in their direction. Here’s the ten most-penalized Bills from 2018. Okay, eleven because the last two tied.
- Dion Dawkins
- Tre’Davious White
- Jerry Hughes
John Miller Kelvin Benjamin
- Vlad Ducasse
- Wyatt Teller
- Taron Johnson
Seven of the top eleven offenders are returning, suggesting that we shouldn’t expect penalties to drop off a cliff, though some improvement is possible. Offensive linemen are often the most penalized players, and we should see a few new faces there. Thankfully, most of the pool of potential new linemen are pretty average when it comes to flags. Ty Nsekhe has a bit of an issue and is the only player there who stands out.
For the receiver and tight end additions there shouldn’t be worry of an increase. Tyler Kroft (if he plays) and John Brown are both pretty average. Cole Beasley had only two penalties. Not in 2018 mind you. In his NFL career. About the worst news for player changes is that rookies will likely be asked to contribute and they may be more prone to flags.
As always, credit to Ron from NM for bringing up the concept of disparity. Essentially, disparity is a measurement of the difference between how the Bills did vs. their opponents. Now we can’t break out a crystal ball to see how big the gap will be in 2019, but we can make a guess.
To predict this from a best-guess methodology we bank the assumption that there is some stability in penalty performance year to year. From there, we rank every team in the league by 2018 penalty yardage per game. Yardage is used rather than count, as yardage accounts for penalty severity to some degree. After every team has a rank, we average the Bills’ 2019 opponents and compare it to the Bills’ 2018 rank.
And it’s not good news. The Bills were ranked at number five. Their opponents average 16.25 for their rank. With a range of 1-32 and average of 16.5 that puts Buffalo with a wide gap between their performance and that of their opponents. So our best guess is that Bills will deal with more and/or worse flags than their opponents.
Last year’s predictions
If you’d like to see last year’s prediction, here you go. For a brief recap, I predicted a small backslide but felt the Bills would still be slightly better than average. I was wrong. To my credit, I cited the offensive line as a wild card and they did increase their penalty output by 15. So I’m still wrong, but at least I correctly noted the position group most likely to make me wrong.
I also said the Bills would do a little better than their opponents. This was also wrong. The yardage was close with the Bills earning only 16 yards more than opponents (or one extra yard per game). The Bills had 17 more penalties than opponents and about seven penalty harm points more. Having said all that, maybe this year will go better.