On this fine Monday morning, I bear odd news of a different kind: With one game remaining in Week 6, 2015 has produced the second-most-penalized start to a season since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
That's right. The average of 7.4 accepted penalties per game so far this season is higher than in the first six weeks of any other season except 2005, when the average was 7.9, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. (Thanks to Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information for pursuing that information.)
The good news is that penalty rates have decreased slightly in each of the three weeks since we last checked in on this topic. This has often been the case historically as officials, players and coaches work through the kinks of rule changes and points of emphasis. Still, high penalty rates in nationally televised games -- including the 19 accepted calls in Sunday night's matchup between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts -- have helped foster a perception of flags flying.
Who is to blame for fields tinted yellow? You can find the average penalty rates for each officiating crew through Week 5 in this link. But officials can't shoulder all the blame. As in previous years, there are a handful of players who have proved especially adept at drawing flags.
The chart accompanying this post identifies the culprits. They have all drawn at least seven penalties this season, including those that have been declined or offset.
If you've watched any of Brandon Browner's games the past two seasons, you're probably not surprised to see him atop the list. He was hit with 15 penalties in nine games last season for the New England Patriots, meaning he has absorbed 24 calls in his past 15 games over two seasons. A rare 6-foot-4 cornerback known more for physical play than footwork, Browner has been caught five times this season for defensive holding, twice for pass interference and once for illegal contact. Hands off, Brandon.
Vikings teammate Everson Griffen has four neutral zone infractions in four games. Eye on the ball, Everson.
The list goes on, even as the debate rages about the impact of penalties on winning percentage. The Seahawks, for example, made it to the Super Bowl last season as the NFL's most penalized team.
But ESPN analyst Brian Burke found a small but consistent correlation between penalty rates and game results in his Advanced Analytics projection model, and as you might guess, getting fewer penalties is better. Without a doubt, it's easier on the eyes.
The hold started where?
It was a relatively quiet week for controversial calls in the proverbial gray area -- that's good, right? -- but an early one stuck out for me.
In the first quarter Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium, Kansas City Chiefs guard Ben Grubbs was called for holding on a play that began on his own 2-yard line. After watching the replay, it was more than fair to ask why the penalty did not lead to a safety.
Referee Jerome Boger announced that "the hold occurred in the field of play, not in the end zone." Was that true?
The line of scrimmage was the 2-yard line, which meant Grubbs' feet were at the 1. At the snap, he backed up immediately and took on Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Replays showed Grubbs grabbing Floyd across the chest about five yards into the end zone, at which point Boger threw his flag. Any penalty enforced in the end zone is a safety.
According to Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL rulebook, the primary definition of holding is when a player uses his arms or hands to "materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender's path or angle of pursuit."
Did Grubbs have time to do so during the initial half-second of contact he had with Floyd? CBS rules expert Mike Carey thought so, in essence explaining that the hold was a continuation of that first contact made at the 1-yard line. Fox rules expert Mike Pereira disagreed, tweeting that it was "clearly" a safety.
If contact ahead of a hold should be considered the point of enforcement -- and I couldn't find evidence of that in the rulebook -- it would be another example of a complicated and exception-filled guideline that rises above common sense. The illegal play was Grubbs' armbar. It happened in the end zone. That should be a safety, right?