NFL Penalty Rates Are Rising and ESPN Analytics Thinks It Has the Solution

There are a lot of reasons to watch an NFL game. You can watch it for the high-flying wide receivers, tough-as-nails defensive lineman, or larger than life quarterbacks. One element of the game no one watches for is the penalties. They’re a nuisance in the modern game and do little to make the sport more compelling. 

This year, the NFL has had a fairly high number of penalties. How is this affecting the game, and what’s a possible solution for the problem? 

An NFL referee picking up a penalty flag
An NFL referee picks up a penalty flag | Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

What is the penalty rate in the NFL?

If you’ve watched an NFL game recently and noticed a lot more yellow on the field, you are correct. According to a piece for ESPN on penalties this season, 2019 has seen a spike in flags: 

“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).”

This clearly isn’t a good development. It led one of the game’s top broadcasters, Troy Aikman, to comment in a tweet that, “Our league has a lot to address this offseason as consumer confidence continues to wane.” 

While everyone can agree that more penalties aren’t a great look for the league, how exactly does it hurt the game? 

How do high penalty rates affect NFL teams and games? 

The biggest issue with penalties is the impact they have on the pace of play. Frequent penalties can throw an offense out of sync. It can also make it difficult for a defense to play consistently when the game continues to start and stop. Polling most players at any position would probably reveal a desire for fewer penalties. 

Tom Brady would say so, at least. During a nationally televised Titans-Jaguars games earlier this season, he tweeted, “Too many penalties. Let us play!!!!” 

Aside from the impact on the player’s ability to play, it also makes the game harder to watch. Fans already have to contend with commercial breaks, coaches’ challenges, halftime, and quarter breaks. Penalties, whether they’re deserved or not, force the game to grind to a halt. The game simply becomes less entertaining. 

ESPN’s solution for the high penalty rates

While many fans and media members clamor for referees to throw fewer flags, the ESPN piece linked above argues that might not solve the problem. 

“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.” 

The author uses the example of speeding tickets. In 1974 a speeding ticket was $25. In the ensuing years, the cost has gone up with inflation. If the cost of a speeding ticket remained at $25, there would be much more speeding on the roadway. Making penalties more costly for the team committing them might help limit the number of them. 

Throwing fewer flags would solve the problem of too many penalties, but it may not address the root cause. Players would then just commit more penalties. By increasing the punishment for penalties, the officials make them mean more. This may dissuade players from committing them in the future, leading to a cleaner, tighter game.

Of course, there are a few problems with this idea and the question of how to carry out the rule effectively. However, it is refreshing to see new solutions being proposed.