Are Penalties A Reflection of Coaching?

Pete Smith

Freddie Kitchens is being labeled a poor head coach due to the number of penalties the Cleveland Browns have committed this year. If he's not coaching it, he's allowing it, so there is definitely a sizable element of this that falls on him. However, the way this label gets applied to some coaches and not others is always fascinating, so it's time for a deeper dive.

The raw number of penalties on the Browns is 70, worst in the league. If that's not bad enough, they've only played seven games, while some have played eight, so it's an obscene average per contest of 10. This is clearly one factor in why the Browns find themselves 2-5. It's simply too many and has to improve if the Browns have any plans on changing things.

Ten teams currently average at least eight penalties per game, so if penalties are an indictment of coaching, this should show the worst head coaches in the NFL.

Cleveland Browns - 10

New York Jets - 8.6

Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders - 8.4

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 8.3

Jacksonville Jaguars - 8.2

Detroit Lions - 8.1

Houstons Texans, Arizona Cardinals - 8

Again, the Browns are the worst going away and this is a problem. However, there are two coaches on this list that were candidates for this job at various points and are regarded as good coaches. 

Sean McDermott is fantastic with what he's doing with the Buffalo Bills. They are 5-2 and since he's arrived, every year they are more competitive than expected. He's a good coach and his team commits too many penalties. 

Bruce Arians was a name that came up in the immediate aftermath of the Browns loss yesterday, since he was a popular candidate when Kitchens was hired. The Bucs commit the fifth most penalties in the league.

Maybe penalties aren't simply an indictment of coaching and are a more nuanced conversation, even though they are a hindrance to team performance and can lead to losing.

Let's go deeper, looking at specific penalties and how often they are called on teams, specifically discipline penalties as a potential indication of coaching competence.

False starts are perhaps the ultimate discipline penalty. They aren't supposed to happen. It comes down to knowing the snap count. Occasionally, players will get them trying to get off the ball as early as possible to make sure they get a block, usually in pass protection. So teams that struggle with this must be undisciplined and coached poorly.

The Browns have 16 false start penalties, which is far too many. The Houson Texans under Bill O'Brien have 19 false starts. The Bills, again, have 16. The Los Angeles Rams coached by Sean McVay have 13. The Bucs have 11, tied with teams like the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

From offsides to offensive holding to roughing the passer, there are teams that are worse than the Browns in every category. It's how they add up to get the ugly number that makes any individual penalty look that much worse.

The flip side of this is the teams that aren't penalized. These are four teams that average fewer than six penalties per game.

San Francisco 49ers - 5.6

Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers - 5.7

New York Giants - 5.9

Kyle Shanahan is the biggest coaching star in the league this year. The 49ers are in the conversation for the best team in the league. The New England Patriots are at 6.1, which isn't surprise either given that Bill Belichick is arguably the best of all time.

At the same time, the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants are in this group. The Dolphins don't commit many penalties. They also don't win. Is anyone going to try to make the argument that Pat Shurmur is a good head coach? His team doesn't get flagged often, but he's also one of the worst head coaches in the league on a week to week basis.

The notion that well coached teams don't commit penalties is an oversimplification that ends up sending the wrong message. Clearly, there are good and bad teams at each end of the spectrum. And while there are some trends, it can be a year to year issue. The Kansas City Chiefs were the worst in the league in 2018 at 8.2 penalties per game and they went to the AFC Championship game.

2018 also shows just how many more penalties are being called this year. Thus far, six teams are averaging as many penalties as the most penalized team from last year. Seven teams averaged less than six penalties per game last year compared to just four this year.

Penalties are going to happen. It becomes a question of what types of penalties are occurring, the number of them and answering what penalties really mean in terms coaching.

Ultimately, focusing on penalties is akin to focusing on special teams, running the football or pass defense. They are all areas that require time and energy within practice. Time spent to address and focus on penalties within a period of practice is time that can't be spent elsewhere, whether it's the main focus of that period or taking time from another period of practice.

Teams that have enjoyed coaching stability typically have fewer penalties than those with first year head coaches. Teams with younger players, particularly rookies will tend to have more penalties than teams with veterans. Some players just commit a ton of penalties, no matter what a coach does and it becomes a matter of risk versus reward.

The Browns penalty situation is ridiculous. There's no getting around that fact. It's absurd to go into a game with the expectation they are going to have to overcome 10 penalties in any given game. It's not as problematic as their bottom five turnover differential, but it does reduce room for error. And at 2-5 needing to win at least seven of their remaining nine this year to be competitive, they need all the help they can get.

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