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Why Penalties Don't Matter In Football

So far in 2013 the Cincinnati Bearcats have been called for 29 penalties for a total of 263 yards. That works out to an average of 7.3 penalties for 65.8 yards per game. That puts the Bearcats at 107th out of 125 teams in the country. Large segments of Saturday's broadcast were devoted to expounding on why that is a bad thing. Its not, penalties don't matter.


Before I get to why penalties don't matter I would like a quick word with the lunatic fringe of UC fans. In the wake of the game there was a sizable contingent of Bearcat fans who went to great lengths to attempt to demonize the staff and Tommy Tuberville for the performance Saturday.

Most of their efforts to that end were confined to generic concepts like "not having the team ready to play." Some are going as far as calling Tuberville into question for not working hard enough. Another favored trope is blaming the coaching staff for the penalties the players committed. That is patently ridiculous, as coaches can only be penalized for wandering onto the field during live action. Every other penalty lies at the feet of the players who caused them. But that doesn't matter.

Old Football Wisdom

Yesterday's tragic news drove me to find something, anything to occupy my mind. So I started watching Moneyball being on FX last night which led to the brainwave that ended up being this post. I assume by now that everyone understands the basic plot of Moneyball? Billy Beane had a hunch that "Old Baseball Wisdom" is bull shit. He then set out to prove, statistically, that OBW was bull shit (and it was/is) he then built his team around the concepts that proved OBW to be worthless, and found that OBW cause many teams to overvalue the classical five tools at the expense of skills that actually correlated with winning baseball games (OPS). Of course this is a gross generalization, but forgive me. Unlike the vast majority of my readers I have absolutely no interest in baseball. I simply can't bear to watch it.

Now the game of baseball with its long history has long found a need and a value in counting the ample statistics that are assembled in any given season. The baseball culture has long since canonized those same statistics, but more than that, the perceived sources of those statistics. The so called five tools. Baseball is just an incredibly conservative game, yet another reason why I don't like it.

Football on the other hand is progressive. Football has never developed the same fixation with maintaining its own culture. With short seasons and much more emphasis placed on winning innovation has always been the path to success. Since the 70's, when the last vestige of resistance to the forward pass fell by the wayside there has been nothing for football conservatives to hand onto. A coach simply can't afford to be sentimental and keep his job in football.

So they have focused on a couple of notions. One is that a team must protect the football to be successful (this is actually true by the way). The other is that a team must be disciplined. "Disciplined" can mean anything. They could be talking about being disciplined in a tactical sense, (which is almost impossible to tell watching live be it in person or on TV.) Far more often being "disciplined" = not committing penalties, and that is total bull shit.

Penalties Don't Matter

I have long thought that penalties were irrelevant to winning and losing football games. But it took the push of Brad Pitt as Billy Beane last night for me to set out to prove it. So that's what I did.

I took the national rankings for penalties from the 2012 season back through 2007. That gives me six seasons worth of data. I then broke each season into three groups. One group of the 20 least penalized teams, another of the 20 schools in the middle of the rankings, and a final group of the 20 most penalized teams. The middle group is effectively a control group as the 20 teams therein are a statistical representation of average, if penalties work on the bell curve. I then looked up with won/loss records of all 60 schools and averaged the winning percentage of each group of 20 to see what effect their degree of penalization has on a team's winning percentage. Here are my findings.

2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 Average
Top 20 45% 53% 62% 60% 59% 56% 56%
Middle 20 50% 60% 49% 52% 43% 52% 51%
Bottom 20 53% 50% 54% 53% 64% 53% 55%

My conclusion is that there is no obvious correlation between the degree of penalization for a given team and how often that same team wins football games. I will acknowledge that including only 60 schools per year rather than 120, or as is the case now, 125 would change the numbers slightly, but I doubt that it would change my conclusion.

There were quite a few people popping off that the Bearcats rash of penalties are prove that this season is going to end just as badly as the 2010 season did. That they are emblematic of a general lack of care and focus on the part of the players and staff. That the mounting penalties will end up costing UC a game it should win.

To which I would ask them this. When was the last time you saw a penalty cost a team a game? Individual penalties matter to an outcome about as much as a single play does, which is not to say all that much. There are some incredibly rare exceptions where a penalty comes close to deciding the outcome of a game. For the most part penalties don't matter when it comes to winning football games, despite what the game announcers or your father might tell you. The math doesn't really lie.

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