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Penalty Recap: Buffalo Bills mostly flag-free against the Dallas Cowboys

Does Craig Wrolstad like the Bills?

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

The Buffalo Bills hosted the Dallas Cowboys on a rainy December day in Orchard Park, NY. I don’t think I was alone in hoping that the Bills would be able to edge past the Cowboys to keep their playoff hopes alive. Well, they did a little better than squeak out a victory.

Along the way they also had their cleanest penalty game of the season. Let’s spend time discussing that, but to be fair quite a bit less time than normal on the discussion.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

The charts do the heavy lifting here but let’s have one fun fact for each team. For Dallas, it’s that despite having a decent amount of flags more than Buffalo, they still actually had a clean game by their standards — averaging 7.29 assessed per game and 8.64 true count per game.

For Buffalo, with this very clean game, they’ve fallen all the way to tenth-most flags in the league. If you’re a rule-of-four advocate like I am (since I invented it), tenth place is considered to be in the large cluster of average teams.

Penalty Yards

While Buffalo only had one flag assessed it was for unnecessary roughness, so they ended up with a very high overall severity per flag. It was tacked onto the end of the play, so no yards were impacted. Dallas’ yards are about as expected based on counts. They impacted five yards total but it’s a bit more complicated than that, which I’ll explain below.

Penalty Harm

Dallas Cowboys

With so few we may as well discuss them all. Though the too many men on the field is pretty straightforward. The officials blew the play dead and gave Buffalo five yards.

The roughing the kicker doesn’t need a GIF as the broadcast covered it very well and it was an obvious call. For the formula, it was assessed at 15 yards. I told you things on impacted yards would be complicated. After the punt, Dallas lost four yards. This negated that outcome, so -4 yards were impacted. However, I treat roughing the kicker on a punt like a turnover. Buffalo was giving Dallas the ball and defensive end Sam Williams cost his team four downs. For the formula that’s 15 assessed yards - 4 impacted yards + 4 downs. Or 1.5 -0.4 + 4.0 = 5.1 Harm.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was called for roughing the passer on Josh Allen. I’ll have a GIF in just a second but I want to plant the suggestion that while this wasn’t egregious whatsoever, you’re about to see a forearm not too far away from Josh Allen’s “neck area.” For the record, I didn’t see this live and on my re-watch I wouldn’t have had a problem with this being a no-call. More on gray areas in a moment. First, a GIF.

The NFL rule book for certain flag types gives an idea on what to do when it’s a gray-area call. Put differently, this is essentially the NFL listing tolerance levels for the penalty. For roughing the passer, the default is “when in doubt, call it.” If you ever wonder why sometimes borderline (or even bad) calls are made, remember that principle. The rule book literally says it should be over-called.

Offensive guard Zack Martin was called for unnecessary roughness after retaliating against safety Taylor Rapp. This was offset, and we’ll talk about Rapp in a second. Though maybe read that last paragraph again before we get there.

Tyler Smith’s holding wiped out a nine-yard gain that would have had a first down from second. That’s 10 yards + 9 yards + 1 down for 2.9 Harm. Incidentally, if you were wondering offensive holding is the opposite of roughing. Gray area ones are NOT supposed to be called.

Safety Jayron Kearse’s flag also gave up a down and was assessed for 15 yards. That’s a grand total of 2.5 Harm. This is another one I don’t need a GIF for. He elevated and hit a receiver forcibly in the head while in the process of attempting a catch. That’ll be called every time.

The Cowboys had 13.3 Harm total. That’s on the wrong side of our 10.0 bad day cutoff, but not too terribly.

Buffalo Bills

I debated on even having a chart this week but it’s hilarious, so here you go. Taylor Rapp was flagged for hitting quarterback Dak Prescott in the head as he was sliding. Rapp’s contact was minimal and it’s debatable if he reached the “forcible” threshold the rule says has to happen. It’s a gray-area call. What’s the tolerance for this flag? When in doubt, call it. I can see where this was a gray-area one, so the flag is the right call.

For linebacker Tyrel Dodson’s flag he had the entirety of Buffalo’s Harm for the day at 2.5, which was assessed for 15 yards and one free down. I’ve also spent a lot of time discussing the idea of thresholds today with the extra time I can spend on penalty talk this week thanks to a low burden of data entry.

I’ll put the GIF down here in a second, but as you watch this at full speed remember the gray-area conversation we’ve been having. Is Dak Prescott sliding or clearly giving himself up? I don’t think it’s clear. I think it’s debatable. Remember the officials are told to call the gray-area ones. They called a gray-area one.

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