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What does the Eagles’ high penalty rate tell us?

tl:dr: there may be problems ahead

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Eagles are the most undisciplined team in the league with 44 accepted penalties (and three that were declined), and a stunning 7.1 penalties per 100 plays. That’s 10 more total penalties than the next team, the Buccaneers, who have 34; and nearly 2 more penalties per 100 plays than the next team, the Chargers, who average 5.4.

Certainly the season only being four games old is a factor. The Eagles penalty rate is so high that it will come down as the season progresses. NFLpenalties.com has tracked penalties since 2009, in that time the worst per play rate has been the 2011 Raiders at 5.5, only three other teams eclipsed 5.0. 7.1 penalties per 100 snaps is unsustainable, regression is coming at some point. Due to the high volume of penalties to start the season, even with a cooling down the Eagles will likely end the season among the worst offenders.

But do a high amount of penalties indicate anything? A bad team, or bad coaching, or is it something else?

We will look at pre-snap penalties only. This does cut out a majority of a team’s penalties, but also cuts out a vast majority of subjective calls. I’m all for using referees to test the effectiveness of various methods of torture, but most pre-snap penalties are objective. Offside is offside. Pre-snap penalties are probably more telling about a team’s discipline level than whether or not a ref decided to call holding. If we look at only pre-snap penalties, are there any conclusions we can draw?

I looked at the 5 worst teams at pre-snap penalties each season over each of the past 10 seasons. The results were interesting.

Inexperience

Before we get to the results, we can immediately rule out inexperienced players being the root cause for the Eagles. Lane Johnson and Isaac Seumalo lead the team with 4 penalties each, and Derek Barnett has 3. Fletcher Cox, Andre Dillard, Zach Ertz, Javon Hargrave, Anthony Harris, Hassan Ridgeway, and Josh Sweat are the only other players who have been called for multiple penalties. That’s a veteran laden list.

Team quality

I will spare you a table of 50 teams to scroll through, 33 different coaches appeared. The 50 teams had a 0.473 winning percentage, which is slightly better than a 7-9 single season record, and almost exactly equivalent to an 8-9 team for 2021. We would expect a losing record because a high rate of penalties creates obstacles to overcome for a team that other teams do not have. But only 9 losses is pretty good, better than I was expecting. These teams run the full spectrum of season results, teams that feature the Hochulii are as likely to make the playoffs as they are to have a top draft pick. 14 teams made the playoffs, while 16 won 6 or fewer games. Clearly a high rate of flags doesn’t correlate to being bad.

The old coach

If a team is undisciplined and changes coaches, it seems reasonable that the new coach would come in and clean that up. But in reality that doesn’t usually happen. Here’s the coaches from the above list who were replaced and where their replacement ranked (in all these tables, 1st is the worst penalized team).

Coaching Change Penalty Rank

Team Year Old Coach Rank Year New Coach Rank Difference
Team Year Old Coach Rank Year New Coach Rank Difference
Oakland 2011 Jackson 1 2012 Allen 6 5
St. Louis 2011 Spagnuolo 4 2012 Fisher 1 -3
San Diego 2012 Turner 3 2013 McCoy 6 3
Buffalo 2012 Gailey 5 2013 Marrone 18 13
Detroit 2013 Schwartz 4 2014 Caldwell 16 12
Buffalo 2014 Marrone** 2 2015 Ryan 8 6
Oakland 2014 Allen* 4 2015 Del Rio 5 1
Miami 2015 Philbin* 1 2016 Gase 7 6
Tampa Bay 2015 Smith 3 2016 Koetter 21 18
Cleveland 2015 Pettine 5 2016 Jackson 11 6
Los Angeles 2016 Fisher* 3 2017 McVay 15 12
San Diego 2016 McCoy 5 2017 Lynn 4 -1
Philadelphia 2020 Pederson 1 2021 Sirianni 1 0
Jacksonville 2020 Marrone 5 2021 Meyer 22 17

*fired mid-season

**Doug Marrone resigned at the end of the season

Of the 14 teams here, 9 of them saw their rank change by 6 spots or less. The other 5 teams saw an improvement of at least 12 spots. That there was no middle ground is interesting. That most of these teams didn’t clean up much could be an indicator that penalty rates don’t say much about coaches, but this is just one measurement.

The new coach

What if we look at it from the other side of a coaching change? Here are coaches who finished in the top 5 in their first year, and how they ranked in their second.

New Coach Penalty Ranks

Year Team Coach Rank Next Year Rank Difference
Year Team Coach Rank Next Year Rank Difference
2018 Indianapolis Frank Reich 3 32 29
2019 Tampa Bay Bruce Arians 1 14 13
2020 Cleveland Kevin Stefanski 3 15 12
2016 Philadelphia Doug Pederson 2 13 11
2017 LA Chargers Anthony Lynn 4 13 9
2017 San Francisco Kyle Shanahan 5 11 6
2012 St. Louis Jeff Fisher 1 6 5
2018 Oakland Jon Gruden 4 8 4
2014 Tampa Bay Lovie Smith 3 3 0
2011 Dallas Jason Garrett 3 2 -1
2015 Oakland Jack Del Rio 5 4 -1

This is a small sample size. But subjectively, as you go down the list the quality of coaches, or least the job the coaches did with those teams, also goes down.

The top half or third of the list has has two coaches who won a Super Bowl in year two in Doug Pederson and Bruce Arians. Frank Reich is having a rough year this season, but prior to that he had three solid seasons. Kevin Stefanski is only in his second year but his first season was easily the best the Browns have had since they returned to Cleveland, and this year’s team might be better.

The middle section is, fittingly, a mixed bag. Anthony Lynn had back to back winning seasons followed by back to back losing seasons. Kyle Shanahan went to a Super Bowl, but is 18-34 in all other seasons. And of course Jeff Fisher was really good at producing mediocrity, it’s almost too convenient that he’s in the middle. Jon Gruden and the Raiders are looking solid so far this year, but prior to this year he was 19-29 since returning.

At the bottom we have bad coaching jobs. Jack Del Rio and Jason Garrett stink. Lovie Smith won 8 games in two seasons with Tampa.

On one hand, up and down this list are coaches who went to Super Bowls. On the other, the ones who were years removed from those seasons are not at the top. Coaches who got a big improvement in their second year turned out to be solid coaches for those teams, and what doesn’t show up on this chart is that they maintained that improvement in year three. Coaches who didn’t get their team’s discipline cleaned up or made moderate gains were less successful. I think we can draw a little something from that.

An unorganized organization

The parity of the NFL means anyone can show up on a good or bad side of any spectrum of measurement once. Half the coaches who ended a season with the highest penalty rate have also gone to a Super Bowl, with four of them winning one. But coaches who show up twice, could that something?

Here’s all the head coaches who showed up at least twice:

Coaches with multiple appearances

Year Team Coach
Year Team Coach
2013 Oakland Dennis Allen
2014 Oakland Dennis Allen*
2011 Seattle Pete Carroll
2012 Seattle Pete Carroll
2013 Seattle Pete Carroll
2014 Seattle Pete Carroll
2017 Seattle Pete Carroll
2019 Seattle Pete Carroll
2015 Oakland Jack Del Rio
2016 Oakland Jack Del Rio
2012 St. Louis Jeff Fisher
2014 St. Louis Jeff Fisher
2015 St. Louis Jeff Fisher
2016 Los Angeles Jeff Fisher
2011 Dallas Jason Garrett
2012 Dallas Jason Garrett
2018 Baltimore John Harbaugh
2020 Baltimore John Harbaugh
2011 Chicago Lovie Smith
2014 Tampa Bay Lovie Smith
2015 Tampa Bay Lovie Smith
2014 Buffalo Doug Marrone
2020 Jacksonville Doug Marrone
2018 Houston Bill O'Brien
2019 Houston Bill O'Brien
2016 Philadelphia Doug Pederson
2020 Philadelphia Doug Pederson

What stands out to me is that these coaches fall into two buckets, both of which are intriguing. Some of them fall into both. One bucket is defensive coaches who seem happiest in scrappy games, more on that later. The other bucket is coaches who coach for thoroughly dysfunctional organizations or organizations that were going through a period of dysfunction.

-It doesn’t show up on this list, but every coach for the Raiders over the past decade has had at least one top five season in pre-snap penalties per play.

-Bill O’Brien’s two seasons of high penalty rate sandwich the Texans hiring a youth pastor to run the team and torpedo the franchise.

-Doug Pederson shows up in a season where the team wanted him to fire an assistant coach who would play a sizable role in winning the Super Bowl a year later; and in a season where ownership pulled a 180 in a matter of days to fire him.

-Six months after Lovie Smith was hired by the Bucs, the team put together a behind the scenes article about Smith’s first 100 days (it’s since been removed), eighteen months and a four win improvement with a rookie QB later they fired him. His replacement was the Buccaneers’ fourth coach in six years.

-Doug Marrone is sort of an exception since he wasn’t fired by the Bills, he exercised an out clause due to the Bills having new owners. But he was also his own type of dysfunction. He informed players he was leaving by having an assistant send a group text, which is up there on the coward scale with Bobby Petrino leaving a short note at players’ lockers, among several petty actions. Unsurprisingly most in the organization were not sad to see him go. He was considered the front runner for the Jets opening, but he bombed the interview. Marrone wound up with Jacksonville, the NFL’s premiere poverty franchise.

This is far from scientific, and it sounds ridiculous to suggest that an offensive lineman is false starting because the owner gave his son a job he isn’t qualified for, because it is. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a team that is woefully undisciplined and unaccountable off the field would also be undisciplined and unaccountable on the field. And I don’t think it’s merely a coincidence that there are coaches who were hugely successful that show up on these lists at a time when their franchises were in disarray. There are several byproducts of dysfunctional teams, and sloppy play is certainly one of them. That doesn’t completely absolve coaches in bad situations, but it lends context.

And there are three coaches I didn’t yet mention: Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh, and Jeff Fisher. That trio coaches/coached for franchises that are stable behind the scenes. And all three are defensive minded coaches who want to play physical, aggressive football (as do some of the coaches on teams in turmoil).

The cost of aggression

There’s an extent to which penalties are a byproduct of aggressiveness.

“It’s a fine line between being a physical, aggressive football team and getting a flag. You gotta be careful. I don’t ever want to be the least penalized team in the league, because I don’t think you’re trying hard enough then…. But I certainly do want to be in the top 10. That’s where you should be. You should be — five through 10 is a great place to be as a penalized team.”

Wanting to finish 6th in penalties shouldn’t be a coach’s goal, but, in a case of read the message and not the messenger, Greg Schiano’s general point is correct. If a coach wants his team to be aggressive, he has to live with a lot of penalties.

So it’s no surprise that coaches who like scrappy games, which is another way to say “coaches with a defensive background,” show up in these results.

The 2021 Eagles

As maddening as it has been to watch points get taken off the board this year, I’m not too worried about it for the rest of this season.

It’s too early to press any kind of panic button. As noted earlier, the rate at which the Eagles are getting penalized is too high to last through a full season; they will go through a stretch where the penalty rate drops. Do not mistake that for an improvement in discipline.

We can safely say that team quality and penalty rate have no relation. We can also toss out the Eagles having a high rate of penalties due the coach wanting a physical, aggressive, grit and grind style, because that’s not the game Nick Sirianni wants to play.

Not only is it too early in this season, it’s not even the right season to make judgements. As we saw above, a high penalty rate isn’t unheard of when there’s a new coaching staff.

But if the yellow flags continue in 2022, that sets off a few red flags. Coaches who couldn’t get their teams to clean up the penalties in their second year were mostly bad coaches and/or they coached for a dysfunctional organization. The jury is still out on whether or not Nick Sirianni is a good coach, but if his team is still piling up the penalties next year, that’s a point against him. But it could be a sign of dysfunction within the organization, and you can already make the case that the Eagles franchise is going through a period of dysfunction. That’s the much bigger worry.