Math Wednesday: Who Cares About Penalties?

By Chad Peltier on June 26, 2013 at 7:00p

Penalties definitely didn't change the outcome of this game. What's 15 yards when you're already up by 17? 

There's no way to get around Meyer's track record in terms of penalties. His Florida teams were consistently the most penalized of all SEC teams over the last five years. 

This was hard to accept for some Buckeye fans who were used to Tressel's squads that always were among the least penalized in the BCS. Some openly worried whether the Buckeyes would become undisciplined under Meyer and whether this might cost the team a few wins. 

In fact, the Buckeyes went from 39th to 107th in the country for fewest penalties between 2011 and 2012. The Buckeyes lost an average of 20.5 yards more per game due to penalties than the year before. 

Obviously penalties aren't a positive thing, but how can we really care about penalty yardage when the Buckeyes went 12-0? Should we fear that increased penalties will cost the team a game or two next year when a national championship berth might be on the line? 

The common wisdom is that the least penalized – or most "disciplined" – teams will be the most successful. Alabama seems to be evidence for this hypothesis, as Saban's squads have been the best in the SEC at limiting penalties. 

However, is it possible that penalty statistics just don't significantly affect the outcome of games on average? 

There happens to be some (limited) large-N statistical research on how penalties affect the probability of winning. Most of these studies conclude that, contrary to our expectations, penalties have an extremely limited impact on the likelihood of winning a game. 

A past Stanford study found that "Penalties are a surprisingly negligible component of the statistics" in predicting whether a team will win or not. Further,

A study of nearly 400 high school, college and professional football games was undertaken during the 2003 season...The results showed that high school teams having more penalty yards in a game won two-thirds of those games (67%), while college teams with more penalties won approximately half the time (52%)...The results concluded that in high school the more you were penalized, the greater your chances were of winning. In college, it was about even...

These weren't just cheap penalties like offsides or motion either – the average distance of the penalty was closer to ten yards than five. 

The book Sports for Dorks notes that the importance of penalty yardage is situational. A penalty at the wrong moment can doom an important drive, turning a potential touchdown drive into just a field goal. However, 

He's probably pointing to RobyNo risk, no reward. 

Sample 24 teams won more frequently without an advantage in penalty yardage (81.6 percent) than they did with an advantage (77.2 percent), suggesting that aggression is a necessary attribute of winners, even though the aggressive attitude prompts the occasional slap on the wrist.

Controlled aggression – like a corner playing a receiver tight at risk of a pass interference call – seems to be a risk worth taking in some circumstances. 

The 2012 Buckeyes were within one standard deviation (1.02 to be exact) away from the average team in terms of penalties. They ranked near the bottom (107), but weren't that far off from average.

UCLA, on the otherhand, was a truly astonishing 3.22 standard deviations (over 90 yards per game in penalties!) from the mean penalty yards.

Meyer preached turnovers, controlled aggression, and maybe a little more risk taking than Buckeye fans were used to, but they were in no way completely undisciplined. 

Furthermore, the limited research so far suggests that it's better to err on the side of risking penalties than it is to be overly conservative. This doesn't mean that Meyer's wants or encourages a lack of discpline or condones playing dirty.

We have to be catious in what we read from these findings - these statistics are "dumb" in that they don't control for the situation or reason for the penalty. 

In any case, these numbers demonstrate that the 2012 Buckeyes weren't that far off the national average for penalty yards. Ohio State's average penalty yardage was 9.21 yards per penalty, which was not (statistically) significantly greater than average. As much as average penalty yards per individual penalty can signal the severity or dirtiness of the penalty, the Buckeyes were close to average. 

So, will Meyer want to decrease the frequency of costly penalties in 2013? Maybe, but not at the risk of playing scared. 


Comments Show All Comments

hetuck's picture

I remember five unsportsmanlike conduct and a roughing the kicker penalty against LSU that were killers. On the other hand, thug Miami set an NCAA record for unsportsmanlike penalties against Texas and still won by a bunch.

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

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YTOWNBUCKI's picture

The difference between a 15 yard pass interference and giving up a TD are obvious.  The ones that get to me are the offensive holds.  They tend to show a lack of discipline.  If my memory serves me correctly, I don't really remember us having too many untimely holding calls last season. 

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wibuckeye's picture

I think the stat on Bama being the least penalized is a little misleading.  College football is mimicking pro football in not calling as many penalties on the elite programs as they do others.  It's something I've noticed for the last several years.


AndyVance's picture

This is discussed a fair bit in the book Scorecasting - the authors take a sort of Freakonomics approach to sports, and indeed conclude that in close games, or when involving big stars (and in theory big programs), the refs tend to "let 'em play," or "swallow the whistle."
(The book also discusses the concept that more often than not, teams should go for it on 4th Down... Talk about murdering a sacred cow!)

droessl's picture

Also, Alabama was 114th out of 124 teams last year in plays per game. Less plays = less opportunity for penalties.  With a more uptempo style that Urban has brought to OSU, there's more chances for penalties to occur.  I'll take it as long as it's controlled agression and not bonehead mistakes like unsportsmanlike conduct or false starts. 


It simply boils down to timing. A dumb 5-yard false start penalty on third down can make the difference between a makeable game-tying/winning 50-yard field goal and a difficult 55-yard field goal. An offside penalty on third and 4 late in a critical game when we're two downs from closing the game out will make any coach want to rip out their hair. The question is this: Is OSU disciplined when it matters most? It seemed that during crunch time last year in close games we did not shoot ourselves in the foot near as much. Will they be able to improve upon that this year when you know our biggest games are going to be nailbiters?

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

Riggins's picture

Wow, all this time and none of us realized that JB Shugarts was our secret weapon...

FH_Buckeye's picture

I can't find it right now, but I read a study where the various types of penalty were compared to teams winning percentages.  Only one type of penalty was a good predictor of a teams record.  That penally was the false start.  Obliviously the more false starts a team had the worse their record tended to be.
The thinking being this if a player is having problems with one part of the mental game (remembering the snap count) they are probably having problems with other parts of the metal game (picking up the correct guy in pass protection).

FLAMikey's picture

LOL! Exactly.
At least now the majority of our penalties aren't false starts.

nickma71's picture

Mark Gastineau agrees with the findings. Because timing doesn't matter for the offense, in addition to the yardage.

pjtobin's picture

I would say you only get caught half the time you do it. You take a 50/50 chance of keeping your guy where you want him, or he gets by and blows up the play. I was taught to grab their pads with my thumbs and palms. To keep my fingers straight. So it just looked like I was pushing his pads through his throat. But I had a football ending knee injury my freshman yr. so I didn't get to learn all the secrets. Lol

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

Dean's picture

I imagine that the disparity between high school and college (the team with more penalties wins in high school 67% of the time and in college 52% of the time) boils down to this - as much as we hate to admit it sometimes, college refs are better than high school refs, so the team in high school that is getting called for more penalties is getting away with a lot more than team in college is. 

unholy bucknut's picture

Penalties aren't so bad when they're highly agressive. I do like seeing a nice clean hard possibly a little late hit on opposing QB's. Make him hear footsteps the rest of the game. But lazy holds and false starts drive me crazy.

pjtobin's picture

Could you explain lazy holds?

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

yrro's picture

I'd think he meant the "well crap I just got my ass beat, better grab onto something and hope no one notices"

Buckeye in Illini country's picture

That's a lot better than getting your QB blown up.
#1 rule of an offensive lineman: protect your quarterback.
#2: Don't get beat.
Obviously, if you don't get beat, you will protect the QB, but if you do get beat; do all that is necessary to protect your QB.

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Poison nuts's picture

I got really frustrated last year by one of the corners who kept getting unsportsmanlike penalties. Can't remember who it was right now but it was driving me crazy...I remember he was good aside from that. Hopefully there is a little more discipline this year.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

Silverbuck8's picture

think your thinking about C.Bryant

cinserious's picture

These statistics don't control for a lack of a j.b. Shugarts or a lack of a 'fake' offensive line coach.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

BeijingBucks's picture

hahaha.. I was just about to say the same thing.  Shugart bless him.  HIs name will be remembered as a Verb, Noun and Adjective.

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

Earle's picture

Unfortunately I will remember his name with an expletive in front of it.  As a former O Lineman, I know that is unfair.  They rarely get mentioned unless they screw up.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

buckskin's picture

Agree 100 percent.  Furthering Chad 's comment regarding the aggressive DB, he may have 2 pass interference penalties in a certain game, but he also shut down the opponents best receiver with that style.  So the DB gave up 30 yards in penalties, but kept 7 points off the board (let's say this great receiver is averaging nearly a TD a game).  This is just one example of many.
Meyer's teams will not play passive, so we might as well get used to the penalties, as well as getting used to the national championships!

Akeem96's picture

There could also be a little bit of not kicking a dead dog (especially in High School).  So a judgment call where a ref is on the fence might bring a flag on a team up big and might not bring a flag on the team that is down big.

RBuck's picture

Watched the replay of last year's scUM game yesterday. Penalties cost us 2 TDs in that game.
Of coarse half of them were bullshit calls.

Long live the southend.

MassiveAttack's picture

Definitely a dumb statistic (as mentioned in the article), as certain penalties are much worse than others.  15-yard unsportsmanlike penalties and 15-yard face masks are the worst in my opinion.  95% of all unsportsmanlike penalties can be prevented.  Face mask penalties are often unintentional, but are often a symptom of poor technique or lazy tackling.  Both extend drives and bail out offenses.
I remember the LSU NC game where we extended two drives that were on third down with face masks.  Think about that for a second, a free 30 yards out of 80?  Placing your opponent on the 50 with a first down?

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southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Penalties are just so subjective and rely on an imperfect referee's instantaneous decision, and like somebody mentioned above, can include penalizing a team with a huge lead more quickly than the poor wretched team being mauled.
I think all those various factors coming into play is why penalties really don't have a huge impact on the game's outcome as some might think.

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