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When Being Wrong is Right

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Last month SMQ did a fantastic series called Stat Relevance Watch in which he looked at various football statistics and their effect on a team's likelihood to win or lose the game. The results were fascinating and I encourage you to read the whole thing when you have a few hours to kill.

Most statistics were pretty straight forward. Teams that did better in a statistical category usually won more than their opponent. SMQ's focus was to point out which statistics meant more to winning than others. In reading this series I noticed a trend in the penalty yards that moved me to leave this comment. after study shows the team with the fewer penalty yards has a losing record. So can we deduce that getting more penalties correlates to winning more games? Or is it just certain kinds of penalties? The so-called "being aggressive" penalties. Obviously there is no value in jumping offsides or clipping on a punt return. But how about committing pass interference to prevent a touchdown? Or holding a DE to prevent a sack?

Saurian Sagacity also noticed the trend and suggested it had more to do with time of possession. His reasoning is that offenses commit more penalties. So the teams that have a higher time of possession will probably commit more penalties. Combine this with SMQ's conclusion that except for in the Big East this year, the team that owned time of possession was more likely to win over 60% of the time. However looking at Saurian Sagacity's correlation chart I am not convinced, and neither is SMQ who has this to say.

SMQ doesn't see anything tangible that suggests a readily apparent correlation of penalty yardage with time of possession. The relationship doesn't hold at all half the time, and a possible correlation seems pretty iffy the other half, which makes it pretty random.

So I decided to take a look at this issue myself to prove my theory that aggressive penalties pay off in the long run since they are an indication of aggressive play. To do this, I looked at every Penn State game and charted out every penalty committed by the Nittany Lions and their opponents. Now admittedly, this is a small sample size and any results should be looked at further on a grander scale of which I have neither the time or resources to do. But we'll see what we can see nonetheless.

The first thing I wanted to do was determine if the correlation of penalty yards to winning existed with Penn State. The answer was "somewhat". Penn State did not have a losing record and did not commit many penalties. (What else would you expect from a Joe Paterno team?) They had fewer penalties than their opponents in all but three games. Interestingly, Penn State won all three of those games which seems to uphold the trend. Also interesting is the fact that in Penn State's four losses, they had fewer penalty yards than their opponent which also upholds the trend. So far so good, however there were six games this year in which Penn State had fewer penalty yards and won the game which goes against the theory we are trying to explore here. For reference, here are all of the penalty totals for Penn State's games this year. I highlighted the three games in which PSU had more penalty yards for your reference.

Team Opponent PSU
Akron 57 33 Win
Notre Dame 64 25 Loss
Youngstown State 20 40 Win
Ohio State 51 20 Loss
Northwestern 20 52 Win
Minnesota 36 20 Win
Michigan 50 8 Loss
Illinois 37 15 Win
Purdue 5 80 Win
Wisconsin 50 44 Loss
Temple 60 30 Win
Michigan State 60 25 Win
Tennessee 55 45 Win

Now let's take a moment and talk about penalties. When you think about it, there are two types of penalties. I call them "procedure" and "technique" penalties. Examples of procedural penalties are things like false starts, delay of game, and illegal motion. They are usually dead ball fouls and bring absolutely no benefit to the team whatsoever. I lump personal fouls in this category since many are dead ball fouls: a late hit, a facemask where the guy is going down anyway, or unsportsman-like fouls. Technique penalties are things like holding, pass interference, and illegal blocks. These are penalties that certainly do not bring benefit when you get caught, but for this theory I'm assuming these penalties are a byproduct of a team being aggressive in their play. In other words, teams that play more aggressive tend to bend the rules more. Maybe they push holding to the limit or bump the receiver a little harder downfield. Aggressive penalties would be an indicator of this behavior. So looking at just the aggressive penalties we see the following.

PSU Penalties Yards Opponent Penalties Yards
Wins 17 173 17 178
Losses 5 53 15 140

In the games Penn State won, they were pretty even with their opponents in aggressive penalty yardage. But in the games they lost Penn State was blown out in aggressive penalty yardage by almost a 3:1 margin. Encouraged by this, I decided to look deeper into the stats by looking at the aggressive penalties game by game. Here is how it broke down.

PSU Penalties Yards Opponent Penalties Yards
Akron 2 18 4 32
Notre Dame 1 15 5 59
Youngstown State 3 30 1 10
Ohio State 1 10 5 46
Northwestern 2 20 1 10
Minnesota 0 0 2 26
Michigan 1 10 1 15
Illinois 2 10 3 22
Purdue 5 60 0 0
Wisconsin 2 25 3 30
Temple 1 10 2 23
Michigan State 0 0 2 25
Tennessee 2 25 2 30

What can we determine from this? Notice how Penn State was blown out in aggressive penalties against Notre Dame and Ohio State. Both games were losses for Penn State and blowouts on the scoreboard at that. And notice the only game Penn State blew out their opponent in aggressive penalties was Purdue, a game that Penn State won. All the other games were pretty much even suggesting both teams were relatively even in their aggressiveness.


Again, this is a very small sample size, so I don't think we can definitively say my theory holds water or sinks. Does my study show that teams should commit aggressive penalties to win the game? Of course not. Usually nothing good comes out of committing penalties outside of the occasional opportune hold or pass interference to prevent a big play. This study was meant to show that penalties are a result of a certain style of play that just so happens to be conducive to winning. Can we deduce that committing more aggressive penalties directly correlates to winning more games? Perhaps. As the data I used shows, most times the difference in aggressive penalties is only one or two and less than 20 yards. However when major differences in aggressive penalties exist, it appears that usually it is the more aggressive team that wins. The only definitive conclusion I have reached is that more study is necessary. Ideally I would like to find a 0.500 team that committed a lot of penalties and played a lot of teams of equal talent level to see how they did. Perhaps another day.