As we continue our journey of looking backward at the 2023 Buffalo Bills season, there’s no better place to start than penalties. Rules and their enforcement is the real reason we watch the games, so let’s start with the big fireworks of season recaps and go over the aggregate data on penalties for our beloved Bills.
As a heads up, this is Part 1 of at least a two-part deal. For the follow up items, feel free to make suggestions on what you’d like to see. I have readily available access to sort flags by team, phase of game, quarter, penalty type, yards, negated yards, negated downs, Harm, and more.
Also a big shout out to nflpenalties.com whose work makes mine so much easier. Here’s to another great season!
The Stats You Can Find Most Places
The Buffalo Bills ended the season with 113 penalties assessed (seventh highest) against them and 130 called (9th highest). Our friends at nflpenalties.com have the assessed listed as 60 occurring at home with 53 away. It’s not unusual for teams to have worse penalty performances at home but it is a neat fact.
Buffalo tied for the seventh-most yards this season with 935 penalty yards. They tied with the Kansas City Chiefs in volume, but Kansas City played in one extra game so far this year. That’s foreshadowing that I’ll be doing per-game stats in a moment.
But first let’s wrap up our volume metrics with opponent information. Buffalo’s opponents were right behind them with 107 penalties assessed. The larger gap is with yards where the Bills’ foes had 818 penalty yards. Opponents had 134 penalties called if you’re curious, which means the refs actually saw more flags that benefited Buffalo this past season, but circumstances led the Bills to decline more frequently.
Buffalo was called for 5.95 penalties per game during the 2023 NFL season, which was a three-way tie for eighth place. Their opponents had a rate of 5.63 per game, which was tied for 18th highest in the league. The NFL average was 5.67 per game.
The Bills’ 49.21 yards per game was 13th in the league. The Bills opponent rank was 25th at 43.05 yards per game. The NFL average was 46.73 yards per game.
To quickly sum up these stats, the Buffalo Bills were slightly worse in count volume and significantly worse in assessed yards. Overall, the suggestion is that the Bills had more severe penalty outcomes than opponents on average.
Interestingly though, compared to league stats, Buffalo was significantly higher than average in count by my rule of four. They were thoroughly average in yardage. While the Bills fared worse than their opponent in average severity, it seems by league standards this was not the case.
Proprietary and Harder to Find Stats
Let’s get right to the sexiest penalty stat of all: Harm. The Buffalo Bills accumulated a total of 190 Harm. That’s math as easy Charlie Bucket’s teacher likes to see. With 19 games, that’s an even 10 Harm per game — which is the exact cut off between a good and bad day using our rule of thumb on the metric.
The Bills had six games over that line, with only one of those fringe (10.8). The other five were 16.8 or higher. Three were in the 20s with a high of 25.9 in London against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Buffalo’s opponents hit 159.2 Harm in the 2023 season. That comes out to 8.34 Harm per game. With our rule of thumb, that means teams edged close on average but overall were under. As you can see from the chart, the gray line does look better overall than the red one.
Now time for some real analysis regarding impact from penalties. The Buffalo Bills had 36 total plays that impacted yardage beyond the assessed totals. Of that number, 33 exacerbated the problem by adding more yards to the penalties. In total, the Bills added 215 more yards to the penalty problem via impacted yards. And yes, the three remaining flags were “negative” impact. That doesn’t mean they were “good” flags, only that there was some mitigation via impacted yards. For example, a tripping call against tight end Dalton Kincaid erased a three-yard sack on quarterback Josh Allen. Washington gave up the three yards but gained 15.
Buffalo had 34 plays that impacted downs (free downs for the other team or lost downs on offense). Cumulatively they cost the Bills 53 downs, which seems like a pretty big deal. How did the opposition do?
Buffalo’s opponents had 27 plays that impacted yardage beyond assessed. Of that, 21 were the exacerbating type we discussed above. That’s quite a big difference compared to the Bills. Which makes this next thing very weird. Those 21 plays tacked on another 342 yards, which is quite a bit higher than Buffalo. Three plays did a ton of damage, each with more than 40 negated yards. The worst of these was committed by a man you may have heard of; Kadarius Toney.
When it comes to downs, it went as expected. On 18 plays, Buffalo’s opponents negated 26 downs, which is almost exactly half that of Buffalo’s.
In summary here, it’s a mixed bag. Buffalo’s higher Harm is primarily a result of a drastically higher number of impacted downs. Which I think is a fair assessment. Downs = opportunity and opportunity is very valuable.
On the other hand, their opponents wiped out a higher number of big plays, which represent more “actual” than “opportunity.” As most things are in life, it turns out penalty analytics are a complex conversation.
Let me know in the comments what you see in the numbers, and don’t forget to chime in with what you’d like to see broken down for the 2023 season.