It’s been well-covered that games in the NFL playoffs have fewer penalties than regular season games. But what hasn’t been discussed is how penalties in the playoffs change—and particularly, offensive penalties.
Based on data collected from nflpenalties.com, since 2009, regular season NFL games have averaged 13.8 penalties a game. Penalties drop by about two and a half calls a game in the playoffs, to 11.1. But all calls aren’t affected equally. Defensive penalties fell from 6.2 to 5.7 calls a game; offensive penalties, however, dropped from 7.5 to 5.5 calls a game. Despite the most visible examples of officials' “let them play” attitude happening on the defensive side of the ball, it appears that the offensives are the biggest beneficiaries of the referees keeping their flags in their pockets.
Notably, in 2013—which includes a much smaller sample of playoff games but is perhaps a more accurate representation of the way today’s game gets called—the gap between offensive and defensive calls is smaller. The 2013 playoffs featured 1.5 fewer offensive penalties a game and 0.9 fewer defensive penalties a game.
Even among offensive penalties, changes aren’t evenly distributed. The two-call drop in offensive flags is attributable almost exclusively to a reduction in only two types of penalties: offensive holding, down 1.2 a game, and false starts, down 0.6 game. Given that these are the most frequent penalties called, it’s unsurprising that these two calls fall the most. However, the next three most frequent calls—defensive holding, defensive offsides, and personal fouls/unnecessary roughness calls—are all down less than 0.1 calls a game, suggesting that offensive holds and false starts may be overlooked more than other penalties.
So who does this favor in this year’s Super Bowl? Seattle’s offensive was called for about one additional hold or false starts per game than the league average. Denver was also more called for holds and false starts than the average team, but by only a third of a penalty per game. Looser officiating on the offensive, therefore, would appear to favor heavily-penalized Seattle. However, giving a historically-great offensive like Denver’s a slight edge could prove to be a bigger differentiator. In any case, we’ll find out in about half an hour…
Importantly, penalties could drop during the playoffs because the playoffs feature better average teams than the regular season. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, however, found that that can only explain a small fraction of the overall decrease in penalties. While it’s not clear how better teams would affect how often specific penalties are called (perhaps better teams have much more disciplined offensive lines), I assume that Stuart’s logic holds for individual penalties and the drop was not due to improved teams.
In addition to looking at rates for specific calls, I looked at penalty differences based on down, distance, field location, and time remaining during the game. While down, distance, and field location don’t appear to affect calls differently in the regular season compared to the playoffs, refs are apparently a good bit more reluctant to throw flags early in the fourth quarter of playoff games than they are in regular season games. Moreover, as an interesting aside, in both the regular season and the playoffs, far fewer penalties are called earlier in the game.
Data was collected from nflpenalties.com. Data was missing for six games since 2009: Packers at Vikings on 12-30-2012; Rams at Seahawks on 12-29-2013; Bills at Steelers 11-10-2013; Broncos at Chargers on 11-10-2013; Rams at Colts on 11-10-2013; and Colts at Titans on 11-14-2013. The script used to collect the data, as well as the raw data itself, is available in this GitHub folder.