I know, I know. You’re all sad about the season coming to an end. It can be very difficult not having a penalty recap to look forward to. Never fear! We still have a season recap to see globally how the Buffalo Bills did in comparison to their opponents and of course we’ll follow it up with our most-wanted list shortly after. The fun never stops!
For the graphics in this and the next section, note that they include the Wild Card and Divisional playoff rounds. I anticipate the league averages falling slightly. As the Bills and opponents are locked in for the year that only makes this look worse.
The above reflects per-game averages. The Buffalo Bills had 124 penalties assessed this year to land at 7.29 per game. The chart clearly shows this is above league average but how bad was it? In per-game numbers the Bills were the ninth-worst team. If you recall my rule of four groupings that puts them in the cluster of 16 average teams, albeit the one closest to being in the “bad” grouping.
Their opponents collectively amassed 98 assessed flags for a 5.76 per game average. That seems like a drastic difference from the Bills but let’s dive in. It’s about 1.5 flags less per game, which doesn’t seem like a radical difference for a team that’s on the fringe of being bad. The per-game average would have been good for seventh-best in the league, so inside the “good” range according to the rule of four, but not quite very good. In all then, there was a good amount of difference in assessed penalties between the Bills and their opponents.
Adding in declined and offset we don’t see a significant shift, with the Bills still about a penalty and a half above their opponents. Before we assume the officials are out to get the Bills, let’s move on to the next topic.
Despite a somewhat elevated count, the Buffalo Bills are nearly perfect average when it comes to assessed yards. They have the 12th-highest per-game rate, which is a big drop compared to their counts. The 50.12 for opponents remains seventh-best in the league. That means there was still a notable difference between Buffalo and their opponents, but the gap is much smaller.
On the right side, a reminder that the league doesn’t collect this info the same way I do so rankings are impossible. However, the Bills’ opponents negatively impacted field position by wiping out yards at nearly twice the rate that Buffalo did. Buffalo negated about 11 yards per game due to penalty while their opponents hovered around 18. Adding in assessed yards and negated, things start to even up.
Advanced Penalty Stats
If there’s one bad habit data nerds tend to have, it’s hoarding their stats and information. This is a practice I’m strongly against. Especially since the audience this type of analysis tends to draw are fans who are hungry for more information.
I originally intended to either attach the 2019 Penalty Harm Workbook or embed my primary pivot table for your enjoyment. It wasn’t feasible. Instead, I have a big table to look at with most of the key statistics that go into penalty harm. We’ll discuss those, but if you’re even just a bit upset the workbook didn’t pan out, sound off in the comments. If there’s enough interest there’s a few ways to give access.
Since we’re discussing the end of the year, the two most important lines are in royal blue at the bottom. These two lines compare the entire year for Buffalo vs. their opponents in these key stats. Some of the stats like negated points are fun to review in more detail, so the rest of the table breaks down how each opponent contributed to the final. AFC East opponents include both games of data in their respective row.
Counts and yards are included for fun but are covered pretty well above. So we’ll start with downs given. These are free first downs for defensive penalties or the occasional intentional-grounding penalty on offense (looking at you Josh Allen). Note that a penalty that gives up an automatic first down on second down is tallied as “one” down given, while the same penalty on third down would be tallied as “two” downs given.
The Buffalo Bills impacted 31 downs over the course of the season. That’s not quite two downs per game. Their opponents had 40 downs given, which is 2.35 per game that Buffalo benefited from.
We’ll skip a column to cover negated turnovers. Buffalo wiped out three turnovers across the year and only benefited from one, which happened to be the first week of the season against the New York Jets. As a nice transition to points negated...
The Jets also negated a touchdown via penalty in that game. While they did manage to punch it in a couple plays later, it’s not the kind of setback you like to see in what became a one-point loss.
The Bills won by four points against the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincinnati had a 92-yard kickoff return touchdown negated thanks to a holding call. They then proceeded to go three-and-out.
The Tennessee Titans had a very bad day with flags. They nullified a touchdown not once, but TWICE against the Bills. These happened on the same drive, with a poetic illegal forward pass flag as one of the culprits. This led to a fourth-quarter field-goal try that was blocked. The Titans lost by seven.
Finally we get to total harm rating across the season. Penalty harm began as an attempt to examine the idea that no matter the count at the end of the day, the Buffalo Bills had “worse” penalties than other teams. A common refrain from fans is that “Our penalties always happen at the worst time.” It isn’t a perfect system, but it does factor in a lot of situations that result in these complaints.
For 2019, that narrative just doesn’t fit. Despite a difference in assessed penalty counts that favored the Bills’ opponents, it’s Buffalo that comes out ahead when looking at Harm. A huge disparity in negated points leads the way but the Bills had sizable advantages in downs given up and yards negated due to penalty as well. Buffalo had more penalties, but the timing and situations surrounding them were on average less disastrous.