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The Chicago Bears must cut down on penalties

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When we think about what is holding back the Bears, we tend to think about the need to improve the secondary, the frustrating decision-making of the quarterback, and the lack of pressure on the other team. However, sloppy play is the hidden killer of the Chicago Bears.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

When I watch the Bears actually return a punt or a kick these days, I just can't get excited. It's not just that I miss Hester, it's that I miss something else more—I miss the belief that the return is going to stand. Instead of hoping for good field position, I just wait for the flag. I know the penalty is coming. My first thought during a Bears' return is "where's the flag?" Realizing this made me wonder if maybe the Bears are actually just playing a different game than everyone else. Call it flag football.

Consider 2014. Last year, the Bears led the NFL with 28 special teams penalties worth 226 yards. The average last year was 19 penalties and 161 yards, so this one phase provided an extra 9 penalties and cost 65 yards that the 2014 Bears didn't have to spare. Meanwhile, the 2015 Bears seem to be out of the running for the top spot this year, mostly because Buffalo already has 15 special teams penalties. These overachievers are on a pace to hit 40 penalties in this one phase alone. The Bears only have 8 penalties so far (on pace for 22), so if this holds up they will have improved how cleanly their special teams play while some in the league will have gotten worse. Miami, New England, Cleveland, and Buffalo will all pass the mark of the 2014 Bears if trends hold. On the other hand, the Bears are on pace for the seventh highest penalty total on special teams. That is, sadly, improvement.

Unfortunately, the Bears are holding onto their control of other penalty areas. We are tied for first place with offensive pre-snap penalties this year (13, alongside Cleveland and Tampa Bay), and we dominate false start penalties with 10, matched only by Oakland (due to a bye, Oakland is actually ahead of us on a per-game count, though).
Mastering flag football doesn't happen overnight. According to those who study such things, offensive penalties, especially penalties along the offensive line, are the most consistent from year to year. They are also the most costly, with false starts having the greatest correlation with losing football games.

In 2014, we came in second only to the Seattle Seahawks in total offensive pre-snap penalties and in false starts, with 32 offensive pre-snap penalties and 27 false starts (we could not keep up with the 43 and 29 tallies of Seattle). This is a big switch from the 18 offensive pre-snap penalties of 2013, and a significant movement away from the meager 9 false starts the Bears saw that year. Note that it wasn't Jay's absence that resulted in the lower 2013 total, though, because four of the nine false starts took place with McCown as the starting quarterback. That makes for 0.8 false starts per McCown game and only 0.45 false starts per Cutler game. Take a look at this excellent article for a more plausible explanation about why 2013 was such an outlier (spoiler—enjoying a single lineup might make a difference).

False starts and other pre-snap penalties kill drives. They change the options available for play-calling and they signal deeper problems along the line. They also lack an upside. Whereas a pass interference penalty can cost field position, it can also prevent a touchdown or an interception. There's a trade-off. False starts just turn a 4-yard run on first down into a failure instead of a success.

Because false starts are so important in the game, here's a quick look at the Bears and their ranks when it comes to false starts over the years.

False Starts

Games

Per Game

Rank

2015

10

6

1.67

#3

2014

27

16

1.69

#1

2013

9

16

0.56

#31

2012

25

16

1.56

#4

2011

30

16

1.88

#3

2010

27

18

1.50

#6

2009

26

16

1.63

#2

Pulling together all the categories, 2013 is the only year since 2009 when the Bears have not been in the top ten when it comes to offensive pre-snap penalties. A special tip of the hat needs to go to Jimmy Clausen, who in a single game this year managed to earn two delay of game penalties. That means he's averaging one delay of game per start, which puts him at the top of the leader-board for the category in 2015. In fact, Pickles runs roughshod over Jay's potential in this area. Jay's highest rate is 0.25 delays per game, and he is usually well under that.

As an aside, as long as I was looking at penalties, I decided to dig a bit more. It seems to me like #6 never gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to roughing the passer penalties, so I decided to see if this played out in the stats. It turns out I was wrong, at least in a raw numbers sense. From 2009-2015, Chicago has benefitted from 27 roughing the passer flags, good for third in the league over that time, trailing Buffalo and Carolina. Now, it's possible that Dallas (10), Baltimore (11), and New York (24 total, evenly split between both teams at 12 apiece) all really do see their quarterback hit less often—and with what the stats say about our offensive line, I wouldn't be surprised—but it's also pretty likely that Jay gets flags every bit as often as the next guy under center when those flags are warranted. It's hard to feel good about this stat, though, because it means that our quarterback was subject to more abuse than nearly anyone else in the league, even if he did get the yards for it.

Maybe the offensive line is trying to cut down on these hits, though, because they are going above and beyond to keep guys from getting to the quarterback. How else can we explain 2.67 offensive holding penalties per game this season—enough to lead the NFL? 2014 saw only 1.44 holding calls per game, good for 16th place. Likewise, 2013 saw only 1.25 holding calls per game, putting the Bears in 15th place. All those screens, it seems, did do some good after all. Compare those rates to the 1.88 calls per game in 2012 (tied for second place) or the 1.56 holding calls per game in 2011 (eight place). The Martzfense of 2010 was good for 1.94 holding calls per game, narrowly surrendering first place to Pittsburgh. The tenth-place effort of 2009 (1.31 calls) stands in contrast.

Still, there are three phases of football, and the defense should not be left out. The reality is that the defense has been playing clean football. Perhaps too clean. Keep in mind that defensive penalties are a mixed bag, and that they are often the results of a ‘good play,' like when a defense risks the penalty instead of accepting a touchdown. Aggressive play by a defender is a good thing as often as it is a bad thing, and defenders that skirt the line often end up being effective, even if they do sometimes get a flag. This is why there is very little correlation between defensive penalties and losses.

In 2014, the defense had the third-fewest defensive penalties with 27, and in 2013 they were had the fourth fewest with 28. This makes sense—when were the defenders in Tucker's system near enough to offensive players to make a ref reach for the flag? This year, the Bears are tied for twelfth and they are doing better as a unit (please note that I said ‘better,' not ‘well').

To put all of this a little bluntly. The Bears are leading in the penalty categories that hurt them and trailing in the categories that don't matter. They are killing their own drives and they are sacrificing too much field position on special teams. They are letting their quarterback get hammered into the ground, whacked in the head, and wrapped up at the knees.

In other words, if the Bears are going to compete, they need to stop playing flag football.

Note: All stats were current leading up to, but not including, the bye week.