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Post The opportunity cost of penalties

Thursday January 15, 2009

We struggle trying to make a connection between penalties, discipline, and ultimate success on the field. Georgia’s high number of penalties in 2008 led some to try to make the link to off-season disciplinary issues and create the perception of a lack of control in the program. But do a lot of penalties automatically hurt a team? You’d think so, but it’s not necessarily the case. Here’s where this year’s final top 10 rank among the fewest penalties per game:

  • Florida: 105
  • Southern Cal: 114
  • Texas: 77
  • Utah: 96
  • Oklahoma: 105
  • Alabama: 5
  • TCU: 119
  • Penn State: 3
  • Oregon: 99
  • Georgia: 116

60% of the top 10 were among the 20 most penalized teams in the nation including TCU who were dead last. All but two teams (and the entire top 5) were in the bottom half of the FBS.

That doesn’t mean though that those committing few penalties are bad teams. Obviously Alabama and Penn State did well. For teams like Arizona, Iowa, Boston College, and Vanderbilt, committing relatively few penalties was probably a factor in their overachieving success last season.

There just seems to be little rhyme or reason in the impact penalties have on a team, and I think that’s more to do with the fact that we measure raw penalties and yardage rather than trying to understand the impact of individual penalties. Take the BCS Championship. You have a meaningless celebration penalty on Tebow after the game was in hand. Then you have a Duke Robinson hold on a first quarter pass play that turned a long reception into a punt, ending an Oklahoma scoring drive and starting Florida’s first scoring drive.

On the ledger the Tebow and Robinson penalties count the same. The Tebow penalty was even more costly – 15 yards versus 10. The difference in their impact on the game was far different. If you watched the game, you know that, but the box score tells us that Florida was the more penalized team in the championship game by more than a 2-to-1 margin (8-81 yards vs. 4-31 yards). The 30 or so yards negated by Robinson’s penalty are gone from the record.

Many of Georgia’s 2008 penalties were inconsequential. Many more were not. The facemask calls after third-down stops, the pass interference in the Florida game – all had big impacts. Until we have some kind of a metric for the cost of individual penalties, it’s hard to say with any authority that it’s bad to be one of the more penalized teams even though everything you know about football leads you to that assumption. Is there a better way?

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