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Penalty Recap: Stats fall short explaining Bills vs. Broncos in Week 10

Not even Penalty Harm gets this game right

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

For another week, recapping the game proves to be difficult work. In the Buffalo Bills’ narrow loss to the Denver Broncos, the Bills were repeatedly gift-wrapped opportunities to take control of the contest — opportunities they repeatedly squandered. Looking at penalties, there’s no change to this narrative either. The flags on the field were pretty straightforward with none GIF worthy (plus I’m sad about it). The formula hardly came in handy this week either. Let’s do it anyway...

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

See what I mean about squandered opportunities? When your opponent is flagged twice as much as you are, that’s usually a sign that the laundry gave you a few extra chances. I’ll break it down a bit more specifically below, but in this case the stats have it pretty much spot on.

Penalty Yards

On this front the two teams look very even. High counts and average yards like the Broncos had usually suggest a heavy dose of pre-snap flags (hint: Yes). Whereas low counts and average yards like the Bills here suggest a few doozies on the yards (hint: Also yes). Denver’s flags also impacted nine yards beyond assessed, but most of the 15 flags for both teams weren’t more than the assessed damage.

Penalty Harm

Denver Broncos

Denver’s total harm on ten flags was 7.0, comfortably under our 10.0 Harm “bad day” threshold. Look at all those false starts. Or rather...don’t. They’re boring. However, between false starts and offensive holding, the Broncos iced themselves a few times on drives. Or at least helped Buffalo’s defense shut things down.

Only two of Denver’s flags had anything factored into Harm aside from assessed yards. Center Lloyd Cushenberry’s holding wiped out a seven-yard scramble by quarterback Russell Wilson. Running back Javonte Williams’ holding was essentially “ditto” except a two-yard scramble.

I’ll level with y’all though. Harm fails us in this round. Nose tackle Mike Purcell’s offside was on an extra-point attempt and convinced the Bills to try for two — which succeeded. It goes down as one yard for the flag, but it dominoed into a point for Buffalo.

In the early days of Harm, when it was more thought than formula, I considered factoring in the “result” of the penalty such as this. Numerous factors led me away from this idea, but the notion always stuck with me. This is why. Once in awhile even stat nerds like me have to suck it up and say “there’s not a great way to calculate that” and we’re left just giving the story. In a game this tight, that one point made a difference.

Buffalo Bills

This looks like one of the most boring charts in Penalty Harm history as the Bills found themselves at 8.3 total on the day. With only five, I have no excuse to not discuss them all, so for all the Harm fans over the years, I’ll suck it up and do it for you.

Linebacker Dorian Williams was flagged for a blow to the head that was also a bit late. No GIF necessary as it was clearly the right call. I’ll reiterate that these flags do not mean a player is dirty. The language in the rule means 100% that guys just playing the game are going to catch a flag now and then. For the formula, the unnecessary roughness call was just the 15 yards assessed.

Right tackle Spencer Brown’s false start and right guard O’Cyrus Torrence’s holding call occurred on the second drive of the game, and were assessed yards only. The Bills survived both penalties and kept the drive alive... until it ended with an interception.

Speaking of two flags on one drive...

Nickel cornerback Taron Johnson was called for defensive pass interference. I don’t love this one but I don’t love it because I think the rule can be different, not because the refs applied it poorly. We’ve seen this kind of play called exactly this way lots of times before. I posted my thoughts on this on X (the site formerly known as “Twitter”) in a reply to a conversation on how to fix it.

If you care about my two cents, I agree that defenders should have some leeway on clearly underthrown balls like this one was. To me the solution is simple. The rule prevents a player from making contact/impeding an eligible opponent when they’re not “playing the ball.” Every year the NFL releases points of emphasis that are essentially points to stress/interpret rules. We’ve seen ineligible-man-downfield calls a lot this season as a for-instance not because the rule changed, but because the league prioritized it.

So then, players in a footrace getting their feet tangled does not lead to pass interference. Why? It’s considered “incidental” and essentially interpreted as both players competing for the ball. On an underthrown pass, I see a similar argument. Will the NFL like my idea? Hell no. Here it is anyway.

Back to the penalties, the Harm rating for Johnson’s DPI also reflects two free downs given up. The only free downs of the game. I think the rating accurately reflects this as a significant penalty, like anyone watching knew it was. It put Denver in field goal range in an instant. Without the flag, the Broncos would have faced 4th & 10 at the Bills’ 45-yard line.

As we all sadly know, field goal range did not translate to a field goal — not on the first try anyway. A too-many-men-on-the-field call was assessed yards only, and only five of those to boot. Remember what I said about Harm not always getting things right? Twice in one game. This flag directly led to three points for Denver.

Game. Over. About as harmful as it gets.