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There are two types of penalties

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 17, 2009

There are two kinds of penalties in the NFL. One type is the necessary one -- calling them is necessary for the game to exist in its current form (ignoring whether or not these have always been penalties or whether or not they're always enforced). Unabated to the quarterback or encroachment are good examples of this; the game wouldn't be the same if defensive lineman could line up behind the offensive lineman. Pass interference is another -- the modern game would be dramatically different if defensive backs could push a WR out of the way when he is about to catch a pass. Holding is another one -- if a defender is about to get a sack, having a blocker hold him isn't really "fair" and should be penalized. These penalties are designed to highlight the unbelievable athleticism of NFL players and increase fan enjoyment. We want our WRs running free, we want our pass rushers exhibiting tremendous strength and speed, and we want to keep the game from getting boring. If we didn't have the delay of game penalty, things would get pretty boring pretty quickly.

There's another type of penalty, though. Penalties such as roughing the kicker, roughing the punter, roughing the quarterback, late hit, excessive celebration, helmet to helmet, face-mask, horse collar tackle and unnecessary roughness are distinctly different from a delay of game or offsides. The "necessary" penalties are designed to foster competition and excitement; these latter penalties are simply "disincentive" penalties. We don't want you to rough a QB, K or P because they might get hurt. We don't allow horse collar tackles, grabbing the face mask or late hits because a player is likely to get injured. Those things are NOT penalties because it is "unfair" in the spirit of the competition; they are not part of the structure of the game.

Assume a WR is running open down field, and just before he catches the ball, he gets slammed by a CB and drops the ball. It's clear that on that play, the offense "won" and should be rewarded. Therefore, we call pass interference. Now consider a play where the QB drops back, throws a pass to a covered receiver, the ball is knocked down, but the QB is hit late by a defensive end. It's obvious that the defense "won" that play yet the offense will be rewarded with the automatic first down. Why? Not to correct the injustice performed by the defense on that play, but because if defensive players constantly do that, quarterbacks will get hurt, and in the aggregate, NFL play quality will suffer.

These disincentive penalties always bother me, though. To use but one example, here's how the New York Times described the 1986 playoff game between the Jets and the Browns.

The Jets were leading by 10 points with less than four minutes left in regulation when Kosar threw an incomplete pass on a second-and-24 play from the Browns' 18-yard line. Gastineau hit Kosar from behind after he released the pass, and the Jets were given a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer. The penalty gave the Browns a first down at their 33, and they proceeded to drive for a touchdown and later a game-tying field goal.

Without that penalty, the Browns are unlikely to win that game, and John Elway never gives us The Drive a week later. But while Gastineau did hit Kosar late, that flag wasn't a necessary flag but a disincentive flag. And it's my opinion that at least from a micro perspective, disincentive penalties are bad for the individual game even if in the macro world disincentive penalties are good for the Game.

I'm sure every fan base has their own horror story. A terrible roughing the punter or kicker call is as bad as it gets. I know Steelers fans will always remember running into Joe Nedney. The Steelers got one back in the Super Bowl, when Adrian Wilson was flagged for unnecessary roughness following a successful Steelers field goal. That gave Pittsburgh an automatic first down, although they still ended that drive with only a field goal. The Jets actually had another Gastineau moment in '04 when Eric Barton got a roughing the quarterback penalty following a 4th down incompletion in the final minute of the playoff game against the Chargers; the Jets ended up winning in overtime, making it a moot point.

So what am I getting at? Maybe there's a way besides throwing a flag that would provide a disincentive for certain behavior. Players are often fined for their actions, but that doesn't seem to do enough. I'm not really in favor of more suspensions in the NFL, either. I'm not sure what we can do. Maybe start taking away team draft picks if they have too many of these disincentive penalties. I'm not sure whether or not there are habitual offenders (Rodney Harrison aside, of course) but maybe these are random happenings when 250 pound men charge at players and we simply won't ever be able to provide a strong enough disincentive. If we're going to create incentives for sacks, is it possible to avoid late hits and roughing the QB penalties? Maybe they shouldn't be penalties at all? Nothing irks me more than a cheap first down following a bad play by the offense. Surely we need something so players don't just rip the heads off of QBs, but I can't help but think something there's something better than throwing a little yellow flag. Maybe you guys can think of one.