Penalty Falacies - Swallowing the Whistle When It Matters

Submitted Friday, February 21st 2014 10:33 pm

No one likes a game that comes down to a call by the officials. However, there is a widely held belief that officials should "just let them play", especially in crucial moments, such as last minute drives, or the entirety of the playoffs. I couldn't disagree with that sentiment more.  It's also thought that everything is fine, as long as they call a game even. That makes more sense, but both attitudes makes me wonder why those people think the NFL should have penalties at all. Worse yet, there's a semi pervasive line of thinking that the "fairest" way to call an "even" game is to call nothing at all.

Although calling a game evenly is paramount, the problem with the "just let them play" line of thinking is that it benefits the teams that are already trying to get away with the most. Granted, you can make a good argument that the optimum number of penalties is not zero. For example: If a team had zero defensive PI calls well into a season it might be a sign of a defense that offers little resistance, rather than one with "better discipline". However, that said, an approach of playing super aggressive defense with a "come what may" attitude toward the penalties it should draw aught to be a gamble. Putting the flags away is unfair to the team playing more within the rules we've supposedly agreed upon. Worse yet, it assumes everything is equal to begin with. Even if it's true that by sheer counting both sides got away with 3 holds, that doesn't mean they were of the same egregiousness, or had the same impact on the play, or that their timing was even. Getting away with a hold at minute 12 of the 2nd quarter on 1st and 10 run of 6 isn't the same thing as getting away with a more obvious hold, right at the point of attack, on a 4th and 2, with the game on the line.

Another reason it's stupid to throw refereeing in the trash can in crucial moments is because it's in those moments in particular where you're then rewarding the one thing the team shouldn't do. Take one of the more notable non calls of the season; The pass interference that sealed the game for the Panthers against the Patriots. The reason this non-call was so baffling to me was because it was reminiscent of a basketball player intentionally fouling a player. It was almost like the defender (Luke Kuechly) just conceded the penalty, and in this instance, did the one thing he can't do there, give the Patriots the ball on the one. There are situations where getting a pass interference call in their favor is the offense's best, or only, hope. To allow the opponent to get away with it is a disservice to everyone. It rewards incompetence. It rewards cheating. That I get the impression many people would rather have 10 games end like this one did for every one that "ends with a ref deciding it" (as if this wasn't that anyway) is bizarre to me.

If indeed the NFL is "better" without penalties, why have them in the first place? I think you could make an argument that the "fairest" way, and maybe best way, to officiate things like pass interference evenly is to just get rid of those rules altogether. It might cut down on scoring, or make scoring so easy it takes away from the meaningfulness of scoring, but at least it would be fair. Perhaps the fairest way to officiate holding is just to allow the offensive (and defensive) lines to hold each other. However, the penalties exist today. Not enforcing them will, in my opinion, always create a bigger "mockery" of the game in the long run.  For the most part I am of the mindset that if you do something that should be penalized, it should be penalized. Every time. If a team's offensive line holds on every play it should be called every play. If that ruins the game then we should change the rules. Anything short of that rewards cheaters. The problem I have with articles like this is that people are wanting penalty free games in a penalty filled sport. I'm all for cutting back on the penalties, if we do so in the rule book.  The problem is people want to just ignore the rules the game has. That's just a recipe for inconsistency and punishing clean play. 

One last reason it's stupid to think that the NFL is being "ruined" by all the penalties is the gross exaggeration of the number of penalties in the first place. If anything the NFL is already too far in the "no penalties" direction. All the "rule changes" people think are killing the game? Roughing the passer: 0.337 times a game in 2013. Defensive holding: 0.678 times a game. There was just over one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty every 5 games, and one taunting called every 10. If you watched 3 games in 2013 you would have, on average, seen 1 personal foul penalty. I would wager if you asked the average fan how often defensive pass interference was called they'd probably guess something like 4-5 times a game. (Basically a couple times for each team per game.) In fact, while being the 3rd most called penalty, it got called 0.925 times a game in the 2013 season. Not even 1 per game. Less than half a call per team per game.

People would probably consider Seattle's defense pretty aggressive. If there was a team that decided to go with the net strategy of "you know what, let's just play as physical as possible, and chalk the penalties up as a necessary cost", you'd probably say it was them. They only had .79 PI per game and were called for defensive holding .58 times a game. Those marks put them in 1st and 2nd in those categories, respectively. I think you could argue that if there is a penalty problem in the NFL it's that teams know they'll get away with them more often than not. 

past blogs

Roughing The Passer - He Who Cannot Be Touched
Saturday, February 18th 2:01 pm
What Is A Play?
Sunday, October 23rd 9:11 pm
Yes, Deflategate Is Kind Of A Big Deal
Tuesday, May 12th 9:40 pm

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