The “cleanest” playing NFL teams - meaning those penalized to a limited degree - are not guaranteed success in the win and loss column. It’s not correlation-causation. Just because you don’t commit many penalties, doesn’t mean all of sudden that you’re going to win the Super Bowl. That’s an easy conclusion to draw.
However, the disciplined squads that can avoid committing careless penalties on third downs in the red zone with an opportunity to score, or when the defense can get off the field, overall have a significant advantage as opposed to those feeling the wrath of officiating. Racking up a roughing-the-passer or a false start in high-leverage situations is less than ideal let alone at a regular consistent rate over the course of a season.
Buckle up. Let’s hit the calculator.
This topic brings us to the Bears, who in 2016 committed 110 penalties on the main sides of the ball, good enough to be tied for 11th most in the league. That was a significant regression from head coach John Fox’s inaugural 2015 season where the Bears only had 99 penalties called - fourth least in the NFL. For the sake of confusion, all offsetting penalties and declined penalties are ignored.
A team coached by a veteran mainstay shouldn’t regress in that light. Perhaps that speaks to a lack of talent that can’t play without penalties, but Fox’s selling point was discipline and culture, and the numbers speak for themselves. It’s not a worrisome trend through Fox’s lengthy career, but this facet shouldn’t be commended either.
One could argue the numbers aren’t wholly alarming when considering many teams hover around that middling mark, as rules such as holding and pass interference are so subjective, but it’s still a cause and necessary mess to clean up.
At any rate, as we dive deeper, Chicago committed 35 defensive penalties resulting in a first down, good enough to be tied for fifth most in the league. In actual penalty yardage, the Bears stood alone at 11th with 967 yards. Finally, the distribution had a nice, unhealthy distribution on both sides of the ball as the defense and offense had 45 and 65 penalties called, respectively.
And when Chicago unhinged, they binged on committing said penalties as the team had four games with an unruly 10 penalties plus, three of which were decided by a combined 12 points in defeat to the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and at Ford Field to the Detroit Lions. Each of these games came down to the wire. For whatever reason, the discipline affliction or unfair officiating, whatever, became contagious. I don’t think I need to tell you that the cliche of hidden yardage matters, but it does.
Keep in mind penalties that cost a football team a game don’t actually have to happen in crunch time. They could happen on a promising opening drive to the game where you settle for a field goal. Or, after the two-minute warning where the opposing offense is gifted a possession because of reckless officiating, play, or both. The context extends every which way to dwell on as Chicago learned.
Of note, Bears weren’t alone in having more offensive than defensive penalties, though.
In fact, almost every team had the same issue. This isn’t a new observation of a small sample size. From false starts, to holds, to face-masks, NFL offense’s routinely commit more penalties than defense’s. It’s fascinating to note that in a modern league where supposedly the rules have been catered for the offense to succeed in many ways, the offense in turn still steps out of bounds more often than the “dangerous” defense.
The more a game changes for the better, the more it can blow up in your face.
Parity’s driving force
These details are why teams with a bevy of close margins of victory such as Detroit (bottom-10 in penalties accrued) this year, are due for regression in a following season. Football Outsiders’ DVOA regularly tells the best story of a team’s actual measure of quality (the Lions were 27th overall), but circumstances extend farther than that. Instances such as penalties committed by the other team, turnovers, fortunate bounces, along with general talent in that respect, all play into the NFL’s sale of “parity” in the playoff Wheel of Fortune.
In this league, the cream of the crop i.e. the organizations with the best quarterbacks such as the New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers almost always are some of the last teams standing in January.
But for that Wild Card or Divisional Round fodder?
You live off of a healthy amount of penalties not committed and boastful turnover ratio. That’s your selling point. That’s how you can sneak into the postseason and at least go one-and-done. That’s an aspect the Bears obviously don’t capitalize on.
There is credit to the Chicago players and coaches where credit is due. Where the Bears did well in comparison to the rest of the league, is on special teams, as they were tied for fifth-least with 13 flags thrown on returns, and sixth-least in yards lost at 108.
So while the unit coached by Jeff Rodgers is middling in every sense of the word at 16th, as a whole, they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. They’re not going to change and make any kind of impact on returns or coverage, but they’re not worse off in discipline aspects than much of the rest of the NFL.
Yet, while there’s still more to the Bears discipline struggles in penalties than just defensive players as covered here, the guys on offense didn’t have the primary culprits sans guard-center hybrid, Ted Larsen.
In a not-so-stunning individual coincidence, I’m sure Willie Young won’t be stepping to any kind of podium as he was honored with a place on 2016’s “All-Penalty Team”, as one of the two most penalized outside linebackers over the course of the year.
There’s nothing wrong with a defensive player that plays physical and occasionally draws the ire of an official under quality (relative, anyway) mandates. You want a measure of attitude from players on your roster. This is a violent, competitive game. What was the primary issue for Young though, was not physicality, but routinely lining up in the neutral zone - a category he lead the league in with six dubious infractions.
What should be embarrassing was that he was the only player on Chicago’s defense to commit a neutral zone infraction. It’s inexcusable.
The most difficult part of playing defense or football in general is the actual play itself in disengaging from blocks, using hands well, et. al. The most simple exercise that should be completely within control without any recognizable talent, is making sure one is lined up properly. For whatever reason, Young couldn’t do that in 2016, and earned himself the NFL version of a film “Razzie”.
If not for Young’s presence, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks might have garnered consideration as he lead the league in roughing-the-passer penalties with four, in total turning the Bears into the league leader as a team with seven. Hicks was just one penalty overall behind his defensive front seven companion, with seven, too. Another subjective but inherently avoidable penalty in reality.
What a treat.
Regardless, I doubt that this will be a continued trend for Young or Hicks, who are both quality depth and starting impact players in their own right. But as veteran presences not showcasing their experience, this kind of play is troubling to say the least.
As for the Bears, if they’re going to make any kind of third-year jump into contention or at minimum, mediocrity, they’d do best to steer clear of penalties within their power. Composure is on the list of skills you need to win, believe it or not.
If we consider the offense to be off the hook in comparison to the rest of the league, then coordinator Dowell Loggains is in the clear. But as a whole, a team with veteran leadership at head coach in Fox, and a supposed mastermind at defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio, should demand and expect better within reason.
Otherwise, be prepared for plenty of more drive-killing or drive-extending penalties that will cost the Bears in the standings. Because they’ll be inevitable.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.