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Penalty recap: Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos was just plain silly

The Ministry of Silly Flags weighs in

As silly as the game was overall, it looked to be a record-setting day of silliness when it came to penalties. The Buffalo Bills took down the Denver Broncos while piling up a lot of laundry in the second and third quarters. The two teams combined for five flags before the two-minute warning—in a row. In the third quarter another five-play series had four flags. With nine of 17 flags super compartmentalized and zero flags on either team in the fourth quarter, your perception of how the penalties were called could have been drastically swayed by something as innocuous as a bathroom break.


Standard and Advanced Analytics

Penalty Counts

This is exactly why penalty harm became a thing. If you’re looking at the box score to analyze penalties, this is most of your information. Both teams had a slightly worse-than-average day when it comes to count. Both teams are quite similar. This data is accurate but very, very wrong.

Penalty Yards

Our first indication that something’s amiss is the assessed yards (columns to the left). Despite similar counts, the Bills have over twice the yards in penalties compared to the Broncos. Still though, a handful of procedural flags could explain the Denver results. A few bigger ones could put the Bills above average. This is closer to the truth than above, but still way off.

On the right-hand side we add in yards negated by flags. The Bills had 37 yards nullified in this manner and the Broncos had 23. This, too, hints at some things going astray but let’s dive into the silliness.

Penalty Harm

Denver Broncos

Feel free to ask about ones I don’t cover here. For this week I really want to focus on how bizarre this game was in terms of penalities. For instance the left column in each pair (orange for this chart) shows the count of penalty. I’ve considered removing this column numerous times because it’s rare for a player to have more than one flag of the same type in a game. Kudos to De’Vante Bausby for two illegal contact penalties in one game. Kudos to the Bills for gaining enough yards on both plays to decline them.

For the readers who like the math on these here’s a couple that used the formula:

  • Michael Ojemudia’s punch was thrown on first down per the play-by-play but occurred after the whistle, which puts it at second down. The flag itself cost two but added that down back.
  • A.J. Johnson was called for unnecessary roughness. This, too, gave up a down and was assessed at nine yards for half the distance to the goal.

Usually you wouldn’t expect an offside penalty to be the worst flag by far, yet here we are. This one is hard to definitively assess on an objective basis. It’s likely Josh Allen is more protective of the ball if he doesn’t think he has a free play thanks to Jeremiah Attaochu moving early. That said, we stick with the formula. Allen got reckless and tossed an interception, which is assessed as if it removed four downs from your own team (the possession you negated). It also wiped out 23 yards of a return on that interception. That’s 5 yards assessed + 23 yards negated + 4 downs negated. Or 0.5 + 2.3 + 4.0 = 6.8 Harm.

The Broncos had 12.9 Harm total for the game with that brutal offside flag over half the total. That’s a bit on the wrong side of our 10.0 line.

Buffalo Bills

There are some real bad spikes here right off the bat. However, most of these are pretty straightforward. Taiwan Jones was called for holding and wiped out a seven-yard return in addition to the ten assessed.

Stefon Diggs’s offensive pass interference wiped out a 13-yard catch by Isaiah McKenzie. That play occurred right after Ike Boettger negated a touchdown and right before the false start on Dion Dawkins in the series of five straight flags referenced above. Nullified touchdowns are assessed as 7.0 Harm as points are rated in a 1:1 ratio. The nullified TD only rated 8.5 by itself (7 point + 10 yards assessed + 5 yards negated). He had another holding call for the rest of the 1.4 Harm.

An illegal formation wiped out another touchdown and 12 yards (5 assessed + 7 negated). That one was two plays after an offensive pass interference wiped out a touchdown—on the same drive. The first negated TD was called on Ryan Bates who is generally not in a position to be called for pass interference. Let’s take a look.

I can’t say as though I ever thought I’d be writing about a Lee Smith touchdown being wiped out because Ryan Bates forgot he was running a route and started blocking a linebacker. Also consider that the block wasn’t even necessary. This preposterous play call SHOULD have been an easy touchdown.

Let’s end on a low note but still very, very silly. Matt Milano’s roughing call gave up a free down on top of the 15 yards. I want to dive into the rules for this one rather than the math. Here it is.

First things first, Milano was NOT blocked into Drew Lock, as his momentum is what carried him into the quarterback. So that exemption doesn’t apply. That said, contact with the knee is NOT prohibited. Only “forcible contact is a flag. That doesn’t look forcible. Let me also add this quote from the rulebook...

It is not a foul if the defender swipes or grabs a passer in the knee area or below in an attempt to tackle him, provided he does not make forcible contact with the helmet, shoulder, chest, or forearm.

There’s more nuance to the roughing rule(s) but if you trust my reading of them, this is a bad call. Even worse, the flag hit the ground 51 seconds after the “hit” on Lock. It was 65 seconds after the hit that they called it on “Number 52.” If it takes you a full minute to decide if the hit was “forcible” then keep it in your pants refs.

The 2.5 Harm is nothing more than a drop in the bucket as the Bills racked up 33.2 in the ole’ Harm Rating. I’ve been doing this regularly since the 2016 season and here’s the worst offender per year in that span.

  • 2016: Patriots (in BUF) with 29.9 Harm
  • 2017: Jets (in NJ) with 24.5
  • 2018: Bears (in BUF) with 29.6
  • 2019: Titans (in TEN) with 29.6 after wiping out two TDs including one with an illegal forward pass
  • 2020 (until now): Bills (@ Jets) with 24.6 and one negated TD

So is this the worst harm rating in the history of harm ratings? Not quite. I started the project between the 2015 and 2016 seasons primarily as a response to the narrative surrounding Rex Ryan’s lack of discipline in his first year. Fans might remember a 2015 game in which Odell Beckham Jr. tossed some punches at the Bills and Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin told his players they could let the Bills beat themselves with penalties (hint: they did).

That 2015 game against the Giants holds the record if you’re willing to count data from a partial season. That game and one against New England were used as my pilot for the final formula. Buffalo negated two touchdowns in that game and racked up 18 total flags for 135 yards (201 counting negated). The rating landed at 39.6 Harm and we may never see its like again. After this game Rex Ryan implemented his infamous wristband system that was roundly mocked but actually did seem to be a turning point (I wrote a FanPost to prove it).