Through nine games, the Philadelphia Eagles are the most penalized team in the NFC.
With 75 accepted penalties against, the Eagles rank behind only the Oakland Raiders, tied with Los Angeles and Jacksonville* for the second-most in the NFL. Seattle — the Eagles’ opponent this Sunday — and Tennessee rank next with 73 apiece, followed by Miami, Buffalo, Denver and Baltimore, all with 72. The Falcons, who Philly just beat up on Sunday, have 71, per The Football Database. (*NFLPenalties.com has 74 accepted penalties for the Jaguars.)
That’s a lot of flags.
All season long, penalties have been a part of the NFL narrative. Many fans are blaming the NFL’s dwindling ratings this season directly on the increased number of flags, which could be a factor in the stop-and-start nature of games. The NFL rulebook has too many violations, but with player safety concerns on the rise, the league is not in a position to start taking fouls out, even non-contact violations like false start, illegal formation and illegal shift that are, in this day an age, antiquated and unnecessary. That said, while the complaints over flags seems to have intensified, the actual increase in flags over last season is nominal at best.
Flags, Fans and Falling Ratings
So far this year, teams are averaging 7.02 penalties per game, per NFLPenalties.com. In 2015, through a full 16-game schedule, teams averaged 6.93 penalties per game, up from 6.61 in 2014 and 6.12 in 2013, per historical data available at FootballDB.com.
There was a dip in the trend in 2013, as the 2012 number was slightly higher than the following year, at 6.28 flags per team, but the fact remains that the NFL has been calling nearly one full penalty more per team over the last four seasons. That’s two flags per game, which is a lot for the teams, but cannot be the reason why fans are opting to tune out of a nearly four-hour telecast.
And yet, narratives.
Penalties, Playoffs and the Super Bowl
It’s also become a bit of a narrative that penalties are the reason why teams lose. Let’s be clear, in the coachspeakiest way possible: Penalties are bad, and teams should stop committing them.
There is no scenario where committing more penalties is fundamentally better than committing less, and yet year to year, penalties seem to have no bearing on which teams succeed, and even which make the playoffs. Based on the data, a half-decent case can be made that teams with more penalties get rewarded in other ways. Often they are more aggressive on both sides of the ball, and more willing to take calculated risks on the field, which leads to success more often than failure.
Or the two aren’t related much at all. The Raiders have 94 penalties this season — nearly 20 more than any other team in the league — and are tied for the best record in the AFC.
There are 10 teams averaging 7.5 or more penalties this season, and six of them have winning records. Could these teams be doing better? Surely — more on that with the Eagles in a second — but on a macro level in the NFL, penalties are far less debilitating than the narratives want us to believe.
Last season probably had a lot to do with that. In 2015, just two of the 12 most penalized teams made the playoffs. That said, one of them was the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. While that may seem anecdotal when balanced with the preponderance of highly-penalized teams that didn’t fare well last season, in 2014, four of the seven most penalized teams made the playoffs, including both Super Bowl participants, Seattle and New England.
In 2013, five of the 16 teams to finish the year with 100 or more penalties made the playoffs, led again by Seattle, while Denver — the Seahawks’ opponent in that Super Bowl — finished the regular season as the fourth-most penalized team in the league.
In 2012, five of the nine most penalized teams in the league made the playoffs, and while the Rams led the league in flags (and missed the playoffs), Baltimore was second and San Francisco was seventh. The Ravens beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl that season.
None of that is to suggest that the Eagles and Raiders are going to face off in this season’s Super Bowl, but it does suggest that more flags don’t always lead to more losses.
2016 Eagles Penalty Bonanza
All that leads back to the Eagles, and 2016, and their chances at making the playoffs that have been hampered by ill-timed (read: dumb) penalties.
The Eagles have had four games this season in which were penalized 10 or more times. They are 2-2 in those games. In the two losses — a one-point defeat at Detroit and a seven-point loss at Washington — the Birds collected 14 flags (though just 13 accepted penalties at Washington) for more than 110 yards each game. Moreover, defensive penalties are what did the Eagles in, with seven against Detroit and eight against Washington. In both games, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox committed drive-continuing fouls on a third down, leading to touchdowns instead of field goals; a direct impact on the score, and result, in both games.
That’s not to suggest if Cox didn’t commit those two penalties the Eagles would be 7-3 instead of 5-4 but, well, they might.
And yet, while a lack of discipline undid the Eagles in both of those games, it really hasn’t mattered in others.
The Eagles are 3-2 in games in which they have more penalties than their opponent and 1-2 in games in which they had less. Against Minnesota, the Birds had the same number of penalties, though three flags were declined against them, finishing with slightly fewer penalty yards.
Adding in the Vikings win, in the five games in which Philly had 10 or more flags thrown against them, they are 3-2. In the three games in which they had six or fewer flags — five or fewer accepted penalties — they are 1-2.
Unnecessary (Roughness) Penalties
The issue with the Eagles may not just be penalties, but unnecessary ones. Per footballdb.com the Eagles are tied for the most unnecessary roughness penalties in the NFL with seven. The Birds also have 15 false starts, the fifth most in the league. (Andy Reid’s Kansas City team leads the NFL with 19 of those.) Those types of penalties are inexcusable.
The Eagles have just four delay of game penalties, something Carson Wentz has said in post game press conferences he needs to get better at correcting. He should talk to his linemen, too, because the Eagles need to get better at avoiding holding calls, as 13 of their 75 penalties are offensive holding. While the offense has been bad, the defense has actually been pretty good this season at keeping penalties down.
Outside of Detroit and Washington, Jim Schwartz’s defense hasn’t had more than four penalties accepted against them in any game this season. In the loss to Dallas, the defense had just one penalty all game.
Eagles ‘Leaders’ in Penalties
Jason Kelce leads the Eagles with seven penalties accepted, including two false starts and five holds. Jason Peters has six, five being false starts and one hold. Zach Ertz is next on offense with five penalties, three for false starts and two for offensive pass interference. Wentz then has four, including one false start and three listed on footballdb.com as “other”, which includes delay of game and intentional grounding calls. And for all that was made about Halapoulivaati Vaitai taking over for Lane Johnson, he has one penalty all season.
On defense, Jalen Mills and Nolan Carroll lead the team with five penalties each. Mills has a hold, an illegal contact, two pass interference and one listed “other” while Carrol has five pass interference calls. As much as Fletcher Cox’s penalties have hurt the team, he only has three on the year, per footballdb.com.
Sometimes numbers lie. The Eagles do have a problem with penalties and in at least two games a direct link can be made to penalties on the field and a loss on the scoreboard. But on a larger level, for both the Eagles this season and in the NFL over the last five years, the number of penalties has proven to have little correlation to a team’s success.
Cutting out stupid mistakes is important, and unforced errors like delay of game and false start flags need to stop. But sometimes a hold protects the quarterback from getting hit, or a defensive pass interference gives up a big play but saves a touchdown. There is no such thing as a good penalty, but not all of them are bad. At least for some teams.
Whether this season proves the trend right for the Eagles, or not, remains to be seen in the final seven games.