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In Context: Defensive Pass Interference

So, some sports site dings a guy for drawing too many penalties. How much should Bears fans worry?

NFL: Washington at Chicago Bears
Let the flags fly?
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk about defensive pass interference. There’s a lot of misconception out there, and the fact of the matter is that there is no way any analysis I perform is going to top what’s been done other places. It comes down to this—some people who review defensive backs put too much weight on penalties, especially defensive pass interference penalties.

A lot has been made about the poor reviews given to defensive backs because how they might draw penalty flags. However, a look through the top players flagged for DPI reads like a list of players headed to the Pro Bowl. In 2015, Xavier Rhodes, Marcus Peters, and Malcolm Butler led the ranks. Stephon Gilmore was tied for fourth. While Nolan Carroll’s 6 DPIs for 2016 is a bit more suggestive of failure, D.J. Hayden, Robert Alford, and A.J. Bouye round out the top, and that’s some good company for a defensive back to be in.

A little bit later, I’m going to provide a bit more context, but for now I wanted to point out a single fact that illustrates the issue perfectly. In 2013, Mel Tucker’s Cover-None defense was third-best in the league with only five defensive pass interference call against them. The only two teams more capable than Chicago at avoiding DPI that year were Green Bay with three (they went 8-7-1 that year) and Washington with one (3-13).

The leaders in 2013? The most penalized team when it came to DPI? The Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, with 15. They were followed by the Philadelphia Eagles with 13 (10-6). In third place, the Seahawks’ Super Bowl opponents the Denver Broncos came in with 11. Huh.

Back in 2012, the Dallas Cowboys tried to explain this very point simply

Unlike most penalties, however, an abundance of pass interference calls isn’t correlated with losing. Since 2006, the 10 teams that have been flagged most often for defensive pass interference have actually won more games than the 10 least-flagged teams.

The Cowboys were not simply blowing smoke to mask a deficit on the team. Their napkin-math study matched what has been found by others. For example, a study of the CFL found:

The fact that Pass Interference penalties have no correlation to losing also came as a revelation ... these penalties often occur in preventing what would be a bigger play against ... They are almost “preventative” in nature.

Note that the above is significantly cut down—I suggest people should go read the original piece, because it’s really interesting.

Taking on a broader scope, Deadspin explained:

the sort of teams that accumulate more penalties—teams you might call "aggressive" when they're winning—aren't necessarily bad teams, and the sort of teams that accumulate fewer penalties aren't necessarily good team

Football Outsiders has explained the same thing as part of their “basic pregame show.” Ask yourself, how do you feel about Tennessee’s nearly error-free 2015 campaign (1 DPI and 3-13) compared to Denver’s 12 (one for each regular-season win on the way to the Super Bowl)?

I understand it can be frustrating to see laundry, and the spot-of-the-penalty foul is terrible. Some quarterbacks seem to get the benefit of the doubt and others don’t. However, a flag now and then is usually a good sign, so long as the player is doing everything else right.