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How to solve rising penalty rates in the NFL: Increase the yardage

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NFL penalty rates are rising. Fans are angry. And we have a few tips on what the league could do to get back to normal. Let's take a step back.

Through Week 9, there were 14.4 accepted penalties per game, almost a full extra flag more than last season. Since the modern low of 11.2 in 2008, we've seen a steady increase across seasons, and at the current rising pace, the NFL will soon exceed the highest rate since at least the 1970 merger (14.5 in 2005). Combined with stoppages for challenges and reviews, the increase in penalties hurts the sport's entertainment value, considering that the outcome of every play is still in doubt long after the whistle.

If the league wants to address the issue, it will need to understand what's driving the increase and how to best restore balance to the sport. Part of the cause is undoubtedly new penalties designed to make the sport safer. But some of the numbers suggest another, more gradual cause: yardage inflation. And as for a solution to the abundance of flags?

Increase the penalty itself rather than decreasing the frequency.

OK, so what does yardage inflation mean? Consider this analogy. In 1974, the average cost of a speeding ticket was around $25. Today, the fine for speeding is more than five times that amount. But imagine if speeding tickets had not been adjusted for inflation and still cost only $25. People would speed even more than they do now -- a lot more.

With such a trivial penalty combined with the low chance of enforcement, the expected cost of speeding would make it worthwhile to speed wherever and whenever you drive. In this scenario, the police would be handing tickets out as fast as they could write them because the potential penalty just isn't strong enough to deter the behavior. The end result is a lot of tickets and a lot of speeding. But we don't see that today because inflation exists and ticket fines have appropriately spiked.

Let's spin that concept back to the football field. Yardage was much harder to come by back in 1974, but in 2019, a first-and-20 situation isn't quite a drive-killer. And being pushed from the opponent's 20-yard line to its 30-yard line doesn't put an offense out of field goal range as it once did. The cost of an infraction is lower now because those yards are now easier to get back. Consider this:

  • Since 1974, the average gain per play has increased 20%, from 4.5 to 5.4 yards.

  • In the passing game, completion rates have climbed from 52% to 65%.

  • There have also been drastic drops in interception rates (5.2% to 2.2%) and sack rates (7.9% to 6.8%).

So, in terms of our analogy, why not test the limits of the speed limit if a meaningless $25 penalty is all that's at risk?

With that in mind, let's stop calling for just throwing fewer flags. What would happen would be as predictable as what would happen if the police merely chose to write fewer speeding tickets. With an even smaller deterrent to speed, there would be yet more speeding. Eventually, even with a reduced rate of enforcement, the total number of tickets would return near the previous equilibrium due to the increased rate of infraction. And this is precisely what the data shows for NFL penalties since an abrupt drop in 2006.

In 2005-06, penalty rates plunged by nearly 20%, from 14.5 to 11.9 per game, by far the sharpest decrease since the merger, after the league gave guidance to its officials to make fewer holding calls prior to the 2006 season. And of course, the result since then has been a steady climb back to peak levels of penalties, just as the inflation theory would predict.

Plus, it's more than plausible that the underlying rate of infractions -- such as holding and pass interference -- has been climbing over that same period due to the guidance given to the officials to hold onto their flags. Teams increasingly inundate the league office each week with videos of uncalled infractions by their opponents, further supporting the inflation theory.

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So what should be done about all those speeding tickets and penalty flags? The worst way the league could address the increase in penalties is to merely encourage its officials to throw fewer flags. Rather, the NFL needs to do something to cause fewer flags, and that's where inflation comes in.

What if, instead of reducing the rate of enforcement, the deterrent was adjusted for inflation? A $200 speeding ticket would slow someone down a lot quicker than a $25 ticket, just as a 15-yard penalty would be a stronger deterrent against holding than a 10-yard penalty.

There's nothing sacrosanct about 10 yards for offensive holding. In fact, until 1974, the penalty was 15 yards. It was changed in part because Cincinnati Bengals owner and coach Paul Brown demonstrated to the competition committee how hard it was for offenses to recover. That's no longer the case.

Since 2001, conversion rates following a first-and-20 have trended upward, from around 38% to 42%. We don't have data from before that period, but it's safe to assume that rate has been increasing over the past four decades with the steady ascent of passing offense. The game has evolved toward easy yards, and if we want fewer flags, the rules need to keep up.

In case there is any doubt about the effectiveness of deterrent, after the reduction from 15 to 10 yards for a holding call, penalty rates skyrocketed, climbing from 10.1 in 1973 to 13.4 penalties per game by 1976. Teams and players adapted to the weaker deterrent.

NFL historical penalty rates by year

Brian Burke, ESPN Analytics32d ago

Logic suggests the best solution is to increase the cost of several of the most common penalties, particularly for infractions that are sensitive to deterrence, such as holding and pass interference. This reform would reduce both the number of infractions and, given the same rate of enforcement per infraction, the total number of flags.

The NFL should consider these proposed changes:

  • Return offensive holding to 15 yards.

  • Increase defensive holding and illegal contact from five to 10 yards, keeping the automatic first down.

  • Tack on an extra five or 10 yards to the spot foul of defensive pass interference, partially as an added deterrent and partially to account for potential yards after the catch lost due to the infraction.

  • Change personal fouls -- face masks, unnecessary roughness, illegal use of hands, illegal blocks, horse collars and similar penalties -- from 15 to 20 yards, and potentially subject some personal fouls affecting player safety to a brief in-game suspension for the culpable player. (Sitting out three or more snaps would likely enhance the deterrent, perhaps much more than the yardage itself.)

  • False-start and offside penalties, which are naturally difficult to deter, would remain at five yards. Procedural penalties that usually don't invalidate a play's outcome, such as illegal procedure, formation and substitution, can remain at five yards, too.

An alternative approach might be reducing the penalty yardage for some offensive infractions, but including the loss of down. A holding penalty on first-and-10 that results in a second-and-15 might be more conducive to game flow than a penalty giving a team first-and-25.

No plan is perfect in the ongoing search for better game flow, and one counterargument to this proposal is that players are not rational actors subject to incentives and deterrents, particularly in the heat of the moment. But I don't think coaches will be nearly as sympathetic. They will train and select their players accordingly and set priorities to adapt to the stiffer costs of rule infractions. The spike in flags following the 1974 reduction of the penalty for holding is strong evidence of how direct and immediate the impact would be.

Even so, some might still think teams and players would be slow to adapt to the new rules, and that the effect would not be as immediate as it was following the 1974 rule change. We can't dismiss the possibility that there might be a painful learning curve with both high penalty rates and large penalty yardage. Thankfully, preseason games can serve as a proving ground for these reforms, and the league can still adjust enforcement rates and emphasis as needed to prevent any potential form of penalty-pocalypse.

Others might say that large penalty yardages would distort the game, making a drive's success hinge mostly upon penalties. But this concern assumes infraction rates remain constant. First, we already see just that, only it's a series of several penalties rather than one or two larger penalties. Second, an extra five or 10 yards is not going to change football as we know it, but it will change the calculus for players and coaches in terms of their eagerness to hold or interfere. Last, it's plausible, and perhaps nearly certain, that overall penalty yards would be reduced, voiding this concern entirely.

Increasing penalty yardage to account for changes in the game would both reduce the number of flags and reduce the number of rule infractions. Ultimately, the game would be safer and more enjoyable for everyone.