Alright, so there was no Buffalo Bills game this weekend to review penalties from, but that doesn’t mean we can’t nerd out. After all, there’s always something to dive into data-wise.
This bye week, I thought it would be fun to look at how the current Sean McDermott-led team stacks up to his prior years. My gut was saying they’ve been doing better this season when it comes to flags, but us data nerds don’t trust even our own guts. Let’s data dive!
This shouldn’t be a terribly long article, especially considering most of what you want is in the chart above. For those of you who don’t feel like reading all of this, let’s cut to the chase. In many ways, my gut was correct. Buffalo has been doing pretty well when it comes to penalties this season.
I’m a huge advocate of the true count numbers, as this counts declined and offset. You still were flagged, it just didn’t count because something worse happened. For this season, Buffalo is sitting at their third-lowest true count since McDermott took over—which is basically average.
In assessed penalties, it’s their second-best season in the McDermott era so far. This leans closer to potential impact on the field, and I won’t begrudge anyone from preferring this measure for that reason.
Interestingly, it’s our next three metrics that are glaring. Not only is this season the best one so far with yards, true yards, and Harm, it’s comfortably so. The Bills are 14 yards better in assessed yards per game than the next-best season, and 21 yards better in true yards.
When it comes to Harm, the McDermott Bills usually land over the 10.0 cutoff mark that delineates a good versus a bad day. They’ve been under 10.0 once before, but never this low.
So, what’s the deal?
It’s weird that their counts are actually pretty much in the expected range for a McDermott Bills team, but the harm and yardage amounts are so far out of whack. Do I have a theory on why that is? I wouldn’t be a data nerd if I didn’t.
Offensive holding is one of the most common penalties in the league, and it’s no surprise that the Bills had it as their most common penalty in nearly every season. It’s been pretty consistent at just over 20% of their total penalty counts, too.
The “nearly” is significant. This season, offensive holding sits at 11%, while false start and defensive holding are both at the 20% mark. Offensive holding is insidious as a flag because it sets you back 10 yards right out of the gate. It’s also highly likely to wipe out positive yardage, and sometimes negates a first down.
To compare, false start is five yards, and that’s it. No negated yardage opportunity. No chance at nullifying a first down. Defensive holding can give up free downs. However, it’s less likely to negate yardage, and the base assessed yards are also five—half that of offensive holding. This shift is a major culprit in the improvement. While counts are pretty average for the McDermott-era Bills, the type of flag matters, and they’re so far more likely to engage in more minor infractions.
You could make an argument that my gut is only partially correct. While yardage and harm are down, the number of game stops due to flag are within the expected range. It’ll be interesting to see how this season plays out. Historically, flags tend to trend down as the year goes on. If that pans out, it’s possible Buffalo will improve further. That’s of course only if they manage to continue to keep offensive holding flags in check.