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Tommy Sweeney headlines Bills’ worst penalty game of the year

One flag to rulebook them all, and in the stat book — Harm them

Tennessee Titans v Buffalo Bills Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

It was a fun game for penalties this week, with some wackiness we’ll outline below. If there’s one thing that beats the thrill of penalty analysis though, it’s seeing the Buffalo Bills give the New England Patriots a good thrashing. Add in the Sunday results and this week’s penalty recap is just a cherry on top.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

At first glance this looks very even and very average. Most breakdowns only worry about the left-hand columns, which are the assessed flags. On the right-hand side, the teams start to separate, skewing in Buffalo’s favor. There was some chatter this week about how Shawn Hochuli’s crew favors the home team, but if so they sure have a funny way of showing it.

As an aside, I could (and maybe should) write an entire article on how closely crews call things compared to each other. While it’s technically true that Hochuli and company skew toward the home team more than the average crew, it’s also true that the difference is very small.

Penalty Yards

Here’s where things get wacky. Yardage always stems from assessed flags, so referring to the last chart remember that both teams had six assessed penalties. On the field and in the usual stats, the Patriots had a rougher time from what the refs called. When you factor in yards wiped out via penalty, the balance heavily shifts the other way. Intriguing...

Penalty Harm

New England Patriots

There’s a decent number of ho-hum flags here. The delay of game was a relatively smart gamble in trying to get Buffalo to jump offside. It didn’t work and the five yards for the punt wasn’t a huge deal. Defensive end DaMarcus Mitchell’s holding call was on a Tyler Bass kickoff for half the distance to the goal. Offensive tackle Conor McDermott’s holding call was assessed yards only. Offensive tackle Trent Brown’s wiped out quarterback Mac Jones’ longest scramble of the day (six yards).

Center David Andrews and guard Cole Strange both had holding flags that were declined. Strange was flagged during the same play as the hilarious intentional grounding flag. The Jones flag cost them seven yards and one down for 1.7 Harm.

David Andrews is a good analytics case study. The hold occurred on 1st & 10 where Buffalo stopped running back Rhamondre Stevenson for a loss of four. Accepting the penalty would have made it 1st & 20. Declining made it 2nd &14. With the first option, the Patriots had three shots to get 20 yards. Put differently they’d need to average 6.7 yards per down to move the chains. With the second option they had two shots and would need to average 7.0 yards per down. With a roughly equivalent distance-per-down to gain, the second option allows you to (potentially) shut down the drive in two plays rather than three. That means the offense is (potentially) back on the field one snap sooner. The defense is one snap less tired. There’s one snap less chance of a busted coverage/assignment.

Cornerback Jonathan Jones’ defensive hold wasn’t as good for the Bills as their 19-yard pass from quarterback Josh Allen to wide receiver Stefon Diggs so that was also declined.

Cornerback Jack Jones was flagged twice for defensive pass interference. One was declined because the touchdown by wide receiver Gabe Davis was deemed more valuable. The other was assessed at 22 yards and gave up two free downs for the 4.2 Harm we see above.

All-in-all, the Patriots had a so-so day at 9.8 Harm, which is right around our 10.0 breakpoint between a good and bad day.

Buffalo Bills

Offensive tackle Spencer Brown’s false start and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones’ defensive hold were the yardage only. Gabe Davis’ illegal block was assessed for ten and wiped out a seven-yard gain by running back James Cook. Stefon Diggs’ offensive pass interference was similar except it wiped out a ten-yard catch by Diggs himself. That just leaves two to discuss.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen the question “What was Damar Hamlin supposed to do to avoid that?” I don’t think he really could have avoided that hit. But here’s the tough part for fans. The NFL rule for hitting a defenseless receiver doesn’t care about that question. Was there forcible contact to the head or neck area using the helmet, shoulder, or forearm? That is literally the only question that matters. It happened, it should be a flag. The flag was 100% the right call. On that note...

The disqualification was BS. That’s supposed to be reserved for “flagrant” fouls, and this is where the fan question “What else was he supposed to do?” does matter. This is likely in part a response to what happened earlier in the year with head injuries, but to me it’s an over-correction. Hamlin didn’t deserve the ejection

That brings us to our last flag. Tommy Sweeney outdid the Patriots’ day all by his lonesome. Negating a score is the cardinal sin for Penalty Harm and Sweeney negated a TD, which is 7.0 Harm. It was also a 41-yard gain, which was also wiped out (in addition to ten assessed). It was also a second-down play, so it wiped out a down. Is all that fair? I think so. Offensive holding is a flag that can be a spot foul, so the timing of the flag is important. Theoretically some of the gain could have been retained. Sweeney wiped it all out. Incidentally, the idea behind Harm is to flag the flags that deserve a conversation. In this case, the drive that could have ended with a long Diggs TD instead turned into a forced fumble and Patriots ball. We’d be haunted by this flag if the game had been close.

For the formula lovers, it’s:

10 assessed yards + 41 negated yards + 1 negated down + 7 negated points; or 1.0 + 4.1 + 1.0 + 7.0 = 13.1 Harm.

That’s close to the record but not quite. That dubious honor goes to Andre Smith who wiped out a 72-yard punt return touchdown by Isaiah McKenzie last season against the Tennessee Titans (that would have won the game if you’re keeping track). That penalty was “good” for 15.2 Harm.

How spoiled are Bills fans? This pass has been mostly forgotten due to it technically not counting, but let’s refresh our memory on how bonkers this pass was.

The Bills had a season high 20.5 Harm. That’s nowhere near the record set n 2020 against the Denver Broncos. That game had three negated touchdowns and wound up with 33.2 Harm.

Weekly Trackers

I haven’t been doing a lot of notes for the weekly tracking data, but I have to point out that I sort the Most Wanted list by total Harm. Tommy Sweeney vaulted to the number-one spot this week. It was his first flag of the season.