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Penalty Recap: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills


The Buffalo Bills hosted the Miami Dolphins on a spooky Halloween Sunday and came away with a double-digit victory despite not playing their best football. Part of the “not their best” formula was an abundance of flags. Fun fact: I ran the math and this game had one flag approximately every 7.5 plays.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

For assessed flags, the Bills and Dolphins were neck and blowhole. The Dolphins had three declined however, which we’re gonna talk about in a bit. Well we’ll talk about one at least as it’s pretty intriguing (for us penalty nerds anyway).

Penalty Yards

This chart illustrates why this series started in the first place. Seemingly similar outcomes often have very different aspects the deeper you dive. Assessed yards isn’t a particularly deep dive, but the teams are no longer tied. When it comes to true yards, the gap widens. Incidentally, the negatives that led to the Dolphins having less true yards than assessed will also be talked about for similar reasons to the aforementioned declined one.

Penalty Harm

Miami Dolphins

Most of these are pretty straightforward when it comes to the Harm formula so for this week I’ll shortchange that conversation a bit. Andrew Van Ginkel’s defensive pass interference was for a mere three yards, but gave up two downs. That’s 0.3 + 2.0 for that 2.3 Harm rating.

The chart shows two illegal shift flags, but one of those was declined. The other wiped out 11 yards and what would have been a first down from third. That’s 0.5 assessed yards + 11 negated yards + 2 downs for 3.6 Harm. But it’s the DECLINED one I really want to talk about.

The play occurred on 2nd & 8 and Miami completed a pass for one yard. Accepting the penalty would have given Miami the ball for a 2nd & 13. Declining the penalty (what happened) resulted in 3rd and 7. As noted versus the Tennessee Titans, this seems to be an analytics-driven decision. Accepting the penalty gives the Dolphins two shots where they need to average 6.5 yards each play. Declining the penalty gave them one shot to reach seven yards.

Also of note, with two tries to get 13 yards, the Dolphins theoretically have the entire playbook at their disposal. Imagine if a defensive coordinator could dictate what type of play call the opponent will go with. By declining the flag and leaving the Dolphins with 3rd & 7, that’s effectively what happened. That situation strongly favors a passing play, and that’s exactly what it was.

Similarly, Raekwon Davis was called for two illegal-use-of-the-hands penalties. Head coach Sean McDermott accepted both. On the first, Zack Moss had gained seven yards. On the second, Emmanuel Sanders gained eight. While this penalty does give an automatic first down, both plays occurred on first down. Essentially the Bills lost yards by accepting, though they got to keep their first down. In all three cases McDermott is trading small chunks of yards for downs (plus some extra perks with the declined illegal shift).

And for the GIF fans, here’s a flag that SHOULD have been called.

In a game where they couldn’t stop calling illegal hands to the face, they somehow missed this one on the Dolphins’ biggest play of the game. This occurred on fourth down and would have called back a 40-yard play (7.5 Harm). On 4th & 11, it’s highly likely the Dolphins don’t convert and they don’t score their only touchdown of the game.

When it was all said and done, the Dolphins only amassed 10.4 Harm, which is right on the border between a good and bad day. Let’s call it a “meh” day.

Buffalo Bills

We’re already getting wordy so I won’t cover too many of these in-depth. Just one in fact. The officiating crew called some wacky ones, with rarely seen “low block” and “out of bounds on kick” flags making a rare appearance.

Let’s talk about Matt Milano and the horse-collar penalty. Here’s the text of the rule so you can scan for the necessary elements during the obligatory GIF.

No player shall grab the inside collar of the back or the side of the shoulder pads or jersey, or grab the jersey at the name plate or above, and pull the runner toward the ground. This does not apply to a runner who is in the tackle box or to a quarterback who is in the pocket.

Note: It is not necessary for a player to pull the runner completely to the ground in order for the act to be illegal. If his knees are buckled by the action, it is a foul, even if the runner is not pulled completely to the ground.

First off, the runner is well outside the tackle box so that exception is out the window. Second, Milano’s hand is clearly in the “no-no spot.” However, the grab isn’t illegal by itself—it needs to pull the runner to the ground. Looking at the video rule book (seriously, everyone should check these out) it’s clarified that the direction of the pull is irrelevant. Still though, it’s hard to say Milano is pulling anyone to the ground, he’s pulling the runner back.

The flag is also supposed to be called if the runner’s knees buckle. With the ability to watch this play on repeat, it seems pretty clear to me the runner’s legs stop and then there’s an attempt to lunge forward. That said, live it could be interpreted as a small “buckle.” After consulting the rule book I don’t hate this call as much as I did live. I still think it’s the wrong call, but it’s in the “forgivable gray area.”

The Bills had a slightly worse day than the Dolphins with 13.7 Harm. That’s on the wrong side of our 10.0 cutoff, but not horribly so. As you’ll see in the weekly trackers below, it’s a major improvement in fact.

Weekly Tracking Charts