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Bills vs. Chargers penalty recap: Flags a hindrance in Buffalo’s victory over LA

Average count but high Harm

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

The Buffalo Bills have gone from “in the hunt” to “in the mix.” With two games to go, help would be great but Buffalo can forge their own path without assistance if the need arises. That said, this past weekend’s victory over the Los Angeles Chargers was less convincing than many of us were hoping for. Part of the team’s setbacks were of the yellow laundry variety. In a year where I’ve flat out blasted the refs for two different games, I’m giving a finger wag for this one, marking my least “ref apologist” season ever by my reckoning. Let’s dive in.


Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

Nothing here raises any alarms. Both teams are right around the league average. The Buffalo Bills are a tick higher but, as I’ve noted many times, Sean McDermott’s teams typically are a bit high when it comes to flags.

Of note is that we’re nearing the end of the season and the NFL is averaging about 0.4 flags per team each game higher than last season. That’s basically one extra flag per game for the record. Not an insane jump, but it’s been trending down for quite some time. There’s still some time to fall, but I’m not holding my breath on the matter.

Penalty Yards

Here’s where we start to see things swing open. There’s not much notable about the Bills for assessed yards. They’re within the realm of reason for the count but skewing a bit high at around nine yards per flag. The Chargers aren’t too much further away from the mean but they fall below five yards per flag, which is anomalous. More on that later.

For the true yards, Buffalo jumps up big time. The Chargers do as well. If we’re talking ratios, the Bills jump about two-thirds higher than assessed. For the Chargers it’s near double.

Penalty Harm

Los Angeles Chargers

So how the heck did the Chargers average under five yards per assessed flag? Take a look at all the flags with yellow bars. Two illegal shifts, an illegal formation, an offensive holding, and a false start. That’s not quite under five yet, but they’re all fivers except for that offensive holding. The false start was one of those rounding errors that occurs once in awhile. We’re still not under five.

The two without yellow bars have zero harm. Usually those are declined or offset. The offside was declined. The illegal forward pass was not declined. Since it was the end of the game the officials didn’t actually spot the ball for enforcement, so there were no yards. And that is how you get under five yards per flag.

The Chargers didn’t negate or impact any downs. So all 5.7 Harm is due to yards. If you’re curious on the formula, ask away in the comments.

Buffalo Bills

No GIFs with the holiday hullabaloo, but the Bills’ flags are more worth running through the formula and I do have an opinion or two on things. Let’s deal with the boring ones first, of which there are only two. Safety Damar Hamlin’s offensive holding call was declined. Defensive back Siran Neal’s false start was half the distance to the goal on a punt, which was terrifying but in the end was fine. The goal line proximity was set up by two calls I will discuss and right before a non-call I’ll also discuss at the tail end here.

For cornerback Christian Benford’s holding call, the tug helped him get ahead for an interception — which was wiped out thanks to the flag. Negated turnovers are always assessed at 4.0 Harm (one point for each down you cost your team). This one also gave the Chargers a free first down from second in addition to the five assessed yards. That’s 4.0 + 1.0 + 0.5 = 5.5 Harm.

Baylon Spector’s holding call was the usual ten yards during a kickoff return and negated three yards of a 20-yard gain by running back Leonard Fournette. Nothing too crazy.

The call on cornerback Taron Johnson was not one I thought was an issue by the refs. My only shock is that it wasn’t added into the books as a “lowering the head” flag instead of unnecessary roughness. Repeat after me. “Flat back. Leading with crown of helmet.” That is what’s known as “bad tackling form” and is a flag, especially if you hit with force.

Center Mitch Morse was called for two holding calls. The first one also wiped out a five-yard run by quarterback Josh Allen on 2nd & 7. That’s not the one I want to talk about. The second one I’ll get to. Before I do...

Right tackle Spencer Brown was called for tripping, which was a 15-yarder. It also wiped out a six-yard gain on 2nd & 5. That’s 15 assessed yards, six negated, and one negated down for 3.1 Harm. As for the flag, I didn’t see any intent on it and often I don’t think the officials call something incidental due to him rolling on the ground himself. I don’t hate the call as refs don’t always have as good of an angle as the camera. In isolation this is fine. In isolation.

The very next play Morse was called for holding again. This one wiped out a 28-yard gain on 2nd & 7. That’s 10 assessed + 28 negated + 1 negated down for 4.8 Harm. There was a small tug, but I don’t see a material restriction on this one. Another one that in isolation would be fine.

As you likely noted, the plays happened back-to-back so therefore are not in isolation. That definitely rises to the level of at least “irritating.” I can still see the refs’ side of things, but it’s 100% hard to ignore two questionable calls in a row. Further, on the ensuing punt, they missed a very blatant illegal block in the back. Again, nothing crazy, but irritating to say the least.

The Bills racked up 17.6 Harm total on the day, which is quite bad all things considered.


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