Our Second Annual Penalty Shankapalooza Festival

Won’t get fooled again.

Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.

Last year we thought we noticed a pattern of the league’s officials having, I don’t know, a slight bias against the Saints when you looked at the numbers every which way from Sunday.

And most of the world, including the local sports media (except one guy, and I am not sure Les East wants me to mention his name, but he did at least devote a whole column to the issue) either disdained us a homer cranks (some) or ignored us completely (most).

At least John the Baptist only got beheaded.  As Oscar Wilde intoned, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

I’m grateful for one thing, at least Aaron Schatz at Football Outsiders finally noticed and posted some tweets about the 2020 gaps.

I just thought it would cheer everyone up to put all the analysis in one place, along with what happened last year.  Twice, amigos, is not an accident.  The refs are still red-ass chapped about us, and it’s not going away any time soon.

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While we Saints fans are known for our league-famous passion and intensity, making Ahab look like a teenage boy with ADHD.  And we’ve got at least our fair share of homers.  That doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

A couple of presentation notes.  First, the “2019” numbers in here from last year’s posts were after weeks 13 and 14, and the posts here about 2020 are after week 14 although in a couple of places the games this Friday and Saturday snuck in, but three games aren’t going to skew the data in any meaningful way.

More important, I started this over the weekend and didn’t feel like re-doing the whole thing for the Sunday games to re-do all these damn numbers. In the immortal words of Dave Barry, there is a fine line between hobby and mental illness.

You’ll also note comparisons of data sets to “playoff contenders,” which means the league’s better teams still with a shot at the playoff.  The candidates this year are Seattle, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Rams, Buffalo, Baltimore, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Miami, Pittsburgh, Miami and Cleveland. And the term excludes any Saints data.

Also, we really wanted to cut this down to one post, so if you want the underlying data, go ahead and look back at what we did last year, and of course a giant shout out to the guys at https://www.nflpenalties.com/, please go play around on that site for a couple of minutes and give them some clicks.

  1. We have by far the worst net penalty numbers in the league. Again.

In 2019, penalties against the Saints, 95 for 820 yards, 8th most in the league.  Penalties against the opponents, 64 for 487 yards, 32nd in the league, dead last. 

Fast forward to 2020.  Penalties against the Saints, 90 for 936 yards, 8th most in the league.  Hmmm.  Ok, Not crazy.  Penalties against the opponents? 60 for 492 yards, 30th in the league.

But this is absurd, 30th in the league in penalties called in our favor?  With a terrific OL and a tremendous pass rush?   And a minus-30 differential?  Let’s do what we did last year and look at the penalty +/- for the other playoff contenders this year. 

Next worse, Baltimore at -19.  (FWIW, the next worst in the whole league is hapless Jacksonville at -21.  Jacksonville, for crissakes.) Best, Tennessee +20.  Median, +6.  Mean, +1.

Must be a coincidence.

So where does “minus 30” fit in for a team with as good a record as almost anyone right now?

2. We have by far the worst net first down by penalty numbers in the league.  Again.

And here’s another tidbit: “First downs by penalty.”  Right now, the Saints have 19 FDs by penalty, and their opponents….40.  Minus twenty-fucking-one?  We are not the 1972 Raiders, or the 1976 Bucs – this is one of the best teams in football over the last four seasons.  For a frame of reference, here are those other same contenders in 2020:

Next worse, Baltimore at -13.  Best, Tampa Bay +23.  Median is 0 and the mean, +2.

Last year we were net minus-4 per game versus the other contenders.  This year we are minus-3.  A vast reversion to the mean, surely.

Remember, extra first downs don’t just add yardage on the play – they sustain drives, possession and field position.

Just not for the Saints.

3. We have by far the worst net flow-of-play penalty numbers compared to any other contender.  Again.

When we talk about “flow of play” penalties, we mean the not-always-obvious penalties that occur post-snap, where there might be judgment involved, which we consider defensive pass interference, offensive holding, defensive holding, unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, offensive pass interference, and illegal contact.

Across those categories, in 2020 the Saints have had 62 penalties called against them, against….22 in their favor.  How on earth is this possible? 

Well, for one thing, in 2019 it was 56 to 15, so we know it can be done, amirite?

Here’s where the Saints rank in these kinds of penalties called against them versus for them.  To simplify, the Saints “against” rank is where they rank in the number of penalties called against them, and the “for” rank is where the Saints rank in the number of times they got that call in their favor.  For example, if the Saints led the league in committing defensive pass interference penalties, their against is “1st”, and if the Saints got fewer DPI calls in their favor when the Saints were passing than all but two teams, the rank would be “30th”. Hope that’s clear. By category:

Defensive pass interference:

2020 — against 1st, for 20th
2019 – against 3rd, for 22nd

Offensive holding:

2020 – against 12th, for 31st
2019 – against 4th, for 26th

Defensive holding:

2020 – against 4th, for 23rd
2019 – against 2nd, for 27th

Unnecessary roughness:

2020 – against 4th, for 32nd
2019 – against 16th, for 13th

Roughing the passer:

2020 – against 2nd, for 20th
2019 – (only one call each way, oddly)

There are some other categories not listed above with either minor numbers or some that were wildly de-emphasized this season (in particular, illegal contact and illegal blocks on returns, both of which are at least 50% down from 2019 to 2020), but we think you get the picture.

I am a huge proponent of Hanlon’s Razor, which, in English, means “Never assume malice if can also be explained by incompetence,” but…..sorry.  This is beyond coincidence, and beyond incompetence.  This is statistically fucking impossible.  The only reason our penalty ratio isn’t worse is things like our 11-to-19 advantage in false starts, and random five-yards-a-pop crap like that.  These guys aren’t idiots.

Don’t worry, it gets even worse. 

4. Last year our opponents, on the days we played them, were the cleanest team in football.  Big improvement this year – they’re only the second-cleanest.

In the 14 games against the Saints, our opponents have been called for a total of 60 penalties.  By comparison, only the Patriots have committed fewer than 60 penalties over the season. 

That’s OK, it’s an improvement over 2019, when no team had committed fewer penalties than the 64 called on the Saints opponents over the relevant time frame. Miami Somehow, over a two-season stretch, our opponents, when they play against us, are the most penalty-free team in the league.

I wonder how it could be that two years in a row every team is on their best, most disciplined behavior when they play against the Saints?

Bueller?  Bueller?  Anybody?

5. It’s even worse with pre-snap penalties

Again, like 20-19, we tried a little sensitivity analysis, again using the group of 14 current contenders, and wondered if we had more pre-snap penalties, where it’s a lot harder for the refs to shank you, on things like illegal motion or offside, that are so easy to see and track on a replay.

Turns out that out of those 14 teams, the Saints are LAST in pre-snap penalties with 19.  What that means is that if the Saints have fewer pre-snap penalties to back out of the total, the gap in penalties called against during the flow of the play, when the refs have more leeway to exercise judgment, gets even worse.  And we had by far the most post-snap penalties (73), more than any other team. 

Conversely, those great teams we are playing against, the ones who only committed 64 penalties this season, have 28 pre-snap penalties.  If you back out the pre-snap penalties by us (94 – 19 = 73) against our opponents (63 – 28 = 35; FWIW those 28 pre-snap penalties would have ranked 8th in “most pre-snap penalties, guess these penalty prone teams are in fact penalty-prone when judgment is not involved) the gap is even worse:  In the flow of play a 10-2 team not known historically as penalty prone has committed 73 penalties, and their shiv-carrying D-Block opponents 35.  That’s more than a 2-to-1 ratio and within a couple of percentage points almost exactly the ratio from last year.

See what we mean?  Every time we look for some indication that we’re wrong, it gets worse rather than better.

What about total yards penalized?  Maybe we’re getting a lot of flags, but not as many yards per flag?  Nah. Rather than grind through net yards per penalty, we just looked at the net difference if penalty yards for and against for the contenders.  The Saints are 974-512 = a negative 462 (last year was only 349 for the whole season), by far the worst in the whole league. Again….

Time for one more.  Now, there have only been 15 offensive holding penalties called in our favor (including five declined), lowest in the league, but maybe our pass rush just isn’t that good.  I mean, WE think it is, but you have to look at the numbers.  And we didn’t just look at total sacks, we also looked at “hurries” and “pressures”, advanced metrics on the www.pro-football-reference.com site.  We are clearly among the league’s top pass rushes.  By now I am sure you can guess the ending to this story. 

Unless football has changed drastically in the last three months, teams whose QBs are getting savaged tend to clutch, grab, hold, trip and strangle rather than let their QB get killed, and hold more, not less. But what do I know?

6. Are the last two years really a big increase in differential?

Penalties called against us, and against our opponents, by year:

2020 – 63/94

2019 – 96/126

2018 – 144/149

2017 – 108/96

2016 – 100/91

You tell me.

7. Does it really matter?

On this page, https://www.nflpenalties.com/win-percentage.php we see that it sort of makes a difference if you get more penalties called on you than the other guy.

Since 2009 through now (not sure if 2020 is included but whatever), the teams called for more penalties in a game won only 45.6% of the time, and the team committing fewer won 54.4%.  Over a 16-game season, that’s 7.3 wins versus 8.7.  Currently we’re averaging two more penalties a game, which slot computes to 46.4% versus 53.7%, but remember for us, penalties are more than penalties – we have to deal with giving the other teams far more extra first down that even this bad penalty differential would indicate.

Starting every season a game-and-a-half behind the other teams?

Seems fair to me.

* * * * *

Look, there’s not much left to say. Write your senator, call your congressman, and shout at the clouds.  Try again to bring this to the attention of anyone you can.  If we are going to go down, let’s at least go down swinging.

Hey, on a closing note, this is a great team, fun to watch, easy to like and if we are reasonably healthy we have as good a chance as any team to win it all.  So let’s all try to have some fun and enjoy this ride while we can.

Happy New Year and WHO DAT.