Penalties and Passing

Saurian Sagacity discovered an interesting stat: teams that throw the ball for the most yardage are the most penalized, and teams that run for the most yardage are the least penalized. Sunday Morning Quarterback also weighed in on this fact. In both cases, people commented that offenses that throw the ball more tend to run more plays, which gives more opportunities for penalties.

That didn’t sound right to me. In my study of offensive efficiency in Week 1, I demonstrated that the number of plays you run has nothing to do with predicting whether you win. The number of plays you run is dependent on so many different variables, it’s impossible to point to one aspect of the game that determines how many you run. Field position, game situations, defense, and special teams all play a part.

The idea behind the comments is that if you throw the ball more, the clock will stop more (since it stops on incompletions) and you will have more game time to run plays. Well, keep in mind that you get more yards per play passing than by running. In 2006, the average rushing play gained 4.02 yards, while the average passing play gained 7.09 yards (looking at yards/attempt, not yards/completion). Now imagine an 80-yard scoring drive after a touch back . If you were to run every play, it would take you 20 plays to score. If you were to throw it every play, it would take you 12 plays to score.

See the difference? I would think that the extra time afforded by incompletions would be balanced out over the course of the season by the fact that you gain more yards throwing than by running. So, breaking I-A football into quintiles like Saurian Sagacity did, this is what I found regarding passing and total plays run in 2006.

First, rather than look at passing yards, which can be deceiving due to teams’ possession or lack thereof of deep threats, I looked at the percentage of total plays run that were passes. The true test if a team is a passing team or a running team is in the play calling, not in the yardage. I then looked for a relationship between % of plays as pass attempts versus total plays. The average team in 2006 ran 63.99 plays per game, so when I quote deviation, that’s what I’m going off of.

Top Quintile (highest passes/plays): Average 65.47 plays/game, +1.48 deviation

2nd Quintile: 64.68 plays/game, +0.68 deviation

3rd Quintile: 63.20 plays/game, -0.80 deviation

4th Quintile: 63.05 plays/game, -0.94 deviation

Bottom quintile: 63.55 plays/game, -0.44 deviation

So, for the teams that do the most passing, they get an extra play and a half per game. In other words, it’s they get 2.31% more plays than the average team. When you consider that teams in 2006 averaged a penalty every 11.01 plays, that bonus play and a half that the top-20 passing teams had netted them an extra .1344 flag per game.

What these numbers say is that only the top 20% in passing see more than a play per game worth of difference versus the average team in terms of passing adding or subtracting plays from your total. As a sanity check, I ordered teams in terms of plays per game. I then looked at the quintiles and how they fared in penalties per game. The average team in 2006 had 5.81 penalties per game, so when I quote deviations, it is in relation to that.

Top Quintile (most plays/game): 5.80 penalties/game, -0.01 deviation

2nd Quintile: 5.85 penalties/game, 0.04 deviation

3rd Quintile: 5.59 penalties/game, -0.23 deviation

4th Quintile: 6.25 penalties/game, +0.44 deviation

Bottom Quintile: 5.59 penalties/game, -0.22 deviation

These numbers confirm the conclusion: there is no relationship between plays per game and penalties per game anyway, so even if passing more yielded significantly more plays, it wouldn’t guarantee significantly more penalties. Myth busted.

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4 Responses to Penalties and Passing

  1. Gone Gator says:

    Well, I think you could be missing something. You are only looking at passing teams offensive plays. It is probably true that passing teams don’t end up with more offensive plays per game because they score more quickly than running teams. But without the data, I’d submit that a successful team that throws a great deal ends up defending more plays than a successful team that runs a great deal. (Teams that throw because they are always behind would skew the data here because their opponents may sit on the ball to try and run out the clock). But if you compared Texas Tech and Lousiville with West Virginia and Air Force (I’m at a loss for a good running team), you might see a difference in the total number of plays in a game. And penalties can occur on defense as well as offense.

  2. year2 says:

    True, and this also only looks at total penalties (as the original work did too) and it didn’t separate out offensive/defensive/special teams penalties from each other. Ostensibly, a guy running into a return man before he catches the ball has nothing to do with passing.

    I purposefully didn’t single out the Louisvilles and Texas Techs of the world from the West Virginias because I was looking for an overall trend. You generally don’t find overall trends in the outliers; the trends are found somewhere in between.

    Perhaps it’d be useful to single out teams that finished .500 or better to eliminate the just plain bad teams, but I don’t want to make the sample size smaller. After all, Auburn was in the bottom 5 of total plays run last year, so you never know what to expect.

  3. Gone Gator says:

    Not sure on the methodology, but I’d say an example like Auburn (ball control, weak passing game, good defense) should be at the bottom of total plays. I’d expect them to be at the bottom of the list of penalties, except as provided below. The other factor that probably cannot be ignored when it comes to defensive penalties is the “Miami Swagger” factor. All teams that have Florida kids on defense are going to be more penalized because they have been raised up on aggressive “play to the echo of the whistle” defensive philosophies espoused by the U and Mickey Andrews and others. So there is no question that teams featuring these players have more personal foul penalties than your typical Pac 10 or Big 10 team. Southern football is faster and more violent; coaches in the south openly espouse knocking the other team’s QB out (see Andrews’ whole 1990s defensive philosophy or the Canes’ bonus/bounty system).

  4. year2 says:

    I went back and looked it up in my numbers. Auburn was 116th in plays per game, with 57.85 plays/game. I go by the average since not everyone plays the same number of games. They also had 5.54 penalties per game, good for 69th in the country. That’s a pretty big gap.

    Navy, Vandy, Air Force, and Northwestern were the only teams at or below 4 penalties a game. Their plays/game ratios were 67.38, 60.17, 67.17, and 62.83 respectively. Even in that small set, two were above average and two were below. I think there are too many confounding factors for just plays per game to be an indicator of penalties.

    As for the Southern football leading to more personal fouls theory, I don’t think that plays a factor. In the top 20 of penalties per game last year, you had Akron (1), Arizona State (4), Oregon (6), Hawaii (8), Eastern Michigan (9), Idaho (10), New Mexico State (11), BYU (13), LA-Monroe (16), Toledo (17), Kansas State (19) and West Virginia (20).

    The top 20 of penalty yards per game (which could be more telling, since personal fouls are longer than false starts and holding) is filled with pretty much the same teams. If you go by yards per penalty, the only teams from the South are Miss State (8), Wake Forest (11), Miami (15), Arkansas (18), and FAU (19). For their parts, FSU and Florida averaged 7.83 and 7.66 yards per penalty, ranking them 100 and 108 respectively, indicating that their problems were not probably not personal foul-related.

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