Nothing frustrates an NFL coach more than penalties. Just ask Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy, whose team is tied for seventh in the NFL with 8.5 penalties per game (including declined and offsetting penalties).
"You just can't afford to give good teams second chances," Dungy told reporters this week. "You can't afford to make yourself go longer than you have to to score. We believe if you use proper techniques you won't get penalties."
And yet, if penalties are so important, how come the undefeated Tennessee Titans are one of the most penalized teams in the NFL? The Titans are tied for ninth in the NFL with 8.2 penalties per game, right behind the Colts. Tennessee's defense is allowing a league-low 11 points per game and ranks second in yards allowed per play (4.3) -- yet they also lead the league with 4.5 defensive penalties per game.
In their 1998 book "The Hidden Game of Football: The Next Edition," analysts Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn made a remarkable discovery: There is no clear connection between avoiding penalties and winning games. The idea that there's nothing wrong with penalties is completely counterintuitive. It can't possibly be true, can it?
No, actually, it can't possibly be true. At least, it isn't true in today's NFL. Perhaps "Hidden Game" was wrong because it was looking only at the 1997 season, or perhaps the NFL has changed over the past decade, but teams with fewer penalties do in fact win more games. Over the past five seasons, the 25 single-season teams with the fewest penalties have averaged nine wins. The 25 single-season teams with the most penalties averaged just 7.1 wins.
On the other hand, not all penalties are created equal. Teams with a lot of offensive penalties lose a lot of games (as St. Louis fans know quite well), but defensive penalties have a negligible effect on wins and losses. Over the past five seasons, the 25 teams with the most offensive penalties averaged six wins, while the 25 teams with the most defensive penalties averaged eight wins -- the league average.
Another way to look at penalties uses a statistic called "correlation coefficient," which measures how two variables are related by using a number between one and negative-1. The closer to negative-1 or one, the stronger the relationship, but the closer to zero, the weaker the relationship. Over the past five seasons, the correlation between defensive penalties and losses is almost zero (0.03), while the correlation between offensive penalties and losses is 0.34.
Yes, each specific penalty, by itself, is a bad thing. Nobody wants to give the other team free yardage. Penalties like unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer often seem just plain stupid and can often extend a game-winning drive.
But in the bigger picture, defensive penalties are often a byproduct of good defensive play. Defensive linemen trying to anticipate the snap count will get a head start on the pass rush more often than they will pick up encroachment penalties. A cornerback who does a good job blanketing his receiver is bound to draw the occasional flag, especially because every official in the league seems to have a different interpretation of pass interference.
Tennessee's penalties generally come in the first category, not the second. The Titans have only one illegal-contact flag and no calls for defensive pass interference. However, officials constantly flag the Titans for encroachment, offsides and neutral-zone infractions. Tennessee has 16 of these penalties -- no other defense has more than 12.
This isn't poor play; this is play that's close to the edge. The line is probably the strongest part of the Titans' defense, and these flags show how they work to gain an advantage. Sometimes, they jump a little too early, but most of the time the linemen are getting a good, legal jump (or at least a good, illegal jump that the officials don't notice). This is part of the reason Tennessee is tied for sixth in the NFL in sacks, and they are just as good stuffing the run as they are rushing the passer (fourth in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards stats).
As for those offensive penalties, the ones that really hurt the team? The Titans have only 2.7 per game, tied for 22nd in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of "Pro Football Prospectus 2008," now on sale online and in bookstores everywhere.