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Just How Much Are These Flags Affecting Games?

By Paul Gallant, SportsRadio 610
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(Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

(Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – We’ve seen a huge upswing in penalty flags this preseason. Not surprising. After the Seahawks mauled the Broncos and their record setting offense in Super Bowl 48, teams across the league started whining about Seattle’s physicality. And in an offense-friendly league, it didn’t come as a shock when the King of Explanations – Ed Hochuli – explained that NFL officials were planning to emphasize defensive holding and illegal contact this season.

But I don’t think anyone expected the “re-emphasis” to go this far. Games are slowing down to a snail’s pace. And the job of a defensive back has suddenly become Hurt Locker-esque. Cut the wrong wire, slightly touch graze ANY player, and suddenly your defense is completely on its heels. From the ticky-tacky stuff we’ve seen, even MacGyver would’ve experienced his fair share of failure.

To my knowledge, no one has done a statistical breakdown of this increase in penalties. Sure, ESPN showed a graphic of the increase in flags during the Redskins – Browns game. According to their statistics, we’ve gone from seeing 13.5 penalties a game in 2013 to a whopping 18.8 through two weeks of preseason football.

But how many of these flags have been for defensive holding? Or illegal contact? And has anyone shown its effect on the passing game? Are completion percentages up? Are quarterbacks throwing for more yards?

It’s tough to figure out. Neither the league or the statistical websites that cover it (like ProFootballReference.com, ProFootballFocus.com, NFLpenalties.com) put much effort into keeping preseason statistics. Seems like somebody’s going to have to do a lot of homework…

….Well…damnit…I guess I’ll do it.

Before we get to the tables below – I’ll admit, my methods are crude. I kept track of each penalty by type searching through these play-by-play logs (using control-F) with the terms “Defensive Holding”, “Illegal Contact”, and “Defensive Pass Interference” and tallied them up on an excel spread sheet. Any play where the penalty was declined or off-set WAS NOT included. I was only able to look at week two of the preseason because a few week one play-by-play logs (on both NFL.com and ESPN.com) didn’t keep track of the penalties called. So our sample size is pretty small. Here are the results that I found:

1 Just How Much Are These Flags Affecting Games?

It didn’t seem like a whole lot. Until I looked at the 2013 results on NFLPenalties.com. Over the course of the season – from the opener all the way through the Super Bowl – referees called just 181 defensive holds. And incredibly, only 38 illegal contacts. Divide both those numbers by 534 (the total number of games played in ’13 by every single team…for example, the Texans played 16, and the Seahawks played 19) and you see DRASTIC differences on a per team basis. In 2013, teams averaged .34 defensive holds per game and .07 illegal contacts per game. In this past week of preseason action, teams averaged of 1.13 defensive holds and .63 illegal contacts a game. That’s an INCREDIBLE increase of 232% and 800% respectively.

So how about other penalties? Were they up? Let’s look at defensive pass interference:

2 Just How Much Are These Flags Affecting Games?

In 2013, there were 247 defensive pass interference penalties flagged over those same 534 games. Meaning teams averaged .46 defensive PIs a game. Not that far off from our preseason week two average of .44 per team.

Defensive holding and illegal contact calls are obviously way up. But how much are those penalties affecting the passing game? After watching games like Patriots-Eagles and Titans-Saints this week, they must be having a HUGE impact. right?

Hey…NFL.com? ESPN.com? ProFootballReference.com…anyone have a table with preseason week two completion percentages? Passing yard numbers? Touchdowns? Interceptions?

Bueller?

Damnit…guess I have to add these all up by hand too…

3 Just How Much Are These Flags Affecting Games?

So in week two of the 2014 preseason, teams completed (on average) 21.09 passes out of 33.66 for a completion percentage of 62.67%. They averaged 230.88 yards per game, 1.75 touchdown passes and .72 interceptions. Compare that to the 2013 team averages (taken from ProFootballReference.com) where teams completed 21.7 of 35.4 passes – about 61.29% – for 235.6 yards, and averaged 1.6 touchdown tosses and 1.0 picks thrown a game.

There’s a slight increase in most of the numbers that matter – completion percentage (2.25%), TDs (9.38%) and significantly less INTs (-28%) – from the 2013 regular season to week two of the 2014 preseason. But one of the more important numbers – passing yards – saw a 2% decrease.

These numbers DON’T give us the huge difference we wanted to see. Which makes me feel like a shill writing false concussion studies for the league. (not that I’d mind selling out for some extra cheddar…

Still, there are a few things these numbers don’t account for. Most importantly – it’s very likely that 60% plus of the quarterbacks factoring into these numbers won’t throw a pass this season. Because compared to the average starter, a lot of those 60% aren’t…good. When the regular season rolls around, I expect to see a MUCH bigger increase in passing production.

Paul Gallant hosts the “B-Straw and Pauly G” show – weeknights 7-11 PM – with Brien Straw. Get in contact with Paul on Twitter – @PaulyGSays – or on Facebook – Paul Gallant.

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