Bills 35, Bears 13: Penalties heavily skewed against Buffalo in the win

The Buffalo Bills played an oft-sloppy game against the Chicago Bears. They also managed to win by three scores. I can remember a time when games played to the top of their potential resulted in losses. I’ll take sloppy, yet oddly dominant wins over that any day.

On to the real show though. Penalties! There wasn’t much controversy that I recall, but there was some zaniness, and that’s just as good for us.


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Look. I don’t know what to tell you. If you thought this was going to be any better, that’s on you. The headline told you it was going to be lopsided. It doesn’t even really matter what metric we use, either. Harm, as you’ll see below, is theoretically less lopsided, but… well, you’ll see.

Penalty Harm

Chicago Bears

May as well cover both of the Bears’ penalties. Why not? The call for too many men on the field was only five yards away. It’s slightly odd, as it was on offense. You don’t see that one too often. To be precise, this was the 13th one this season. The defensive variety is called about three times as often.

For some context on how rare that is, here’s a sampling of penalty types, and how many have happened this year:

  • Unnecessary roughness: 144
  • Intentional grounding: 36
  • Defensive pass interference: 201
  • Offensive holding: 528 (top flag)

On the other penalty, remember that Harm is a red flag system to highlight penalties that made the game tougher for the offending party. It’s not a straight relationship. I say that because Larry Borom’s flag rated so poorly as it negated a touchdown (an automatic 7.0 Harm). However, the Bears went on to score a touchdown on that drive. To round out the formula, it was assessed at 10 yards, and negated one more.

Let’s take a look at the before and after to see why I think the high rating is still valid (and defend my stat, naturally). The play was 1st & Goal at the Buffalo one-yard line. As noted, the Bears scored. That’s guaranteed points on the board. After the flag, it was 1st & Goal at the 11. That’s a big difference. Now yes, the Bears could have scored on the very next play, suggesting it was no big deal. On the other hand, the Bills had a breath of life on the drive. In this case, the Bears ended up scoring on 3rd & Goal at the six. It didn’t take away the score, but it did make for some uphill climbing.

Buffalo Bills

For the most part, these were just irritating flags. None really stand out as a major Harm level, with nine flags hovering around the “yeah, that kinda sucked but no big deal” level of the metric. Looking closely, though, there’s some wackiness.

Two flags had the weird rounding error that sometimes happens. Occasionally, the spot of the ball leads to the refs actually moving the ball the distance you’d expect, but because of where the ball was in the before and after, it gets rounded on the play-by-play. I could technically credit the actual distance, but as far as I know, I’m the only one who’s ever called out the NFL for this weirdness — and I’m going to keep going on record with it as much as I can make I feel cooler.

The two plays in question were on defensive end Kingsley Jonathan (offside) and cornerback Tre’Davious White (defensive holding). Both are five-yard flags, but were credited for six in the play-by-play. Jonathan’s was six assessed yards, and negated a four-yard tackle for loss for a total of 1.0 Harm. White’s is a little wackier. It was assessed at six yards, negated a three-yard gain, and gave up two free downs. For the formula that’s 0.6 – 0.3 + 2.0 = 2.3 Harm.

Most of the rest are explained by the usual assessed yards plus negated yards. The illegal shift is odd, though, as it wiped out a two-point conversion. You don’t see this too much, and this is only the second time since I’ve been doing this that I’ve had to calculate it. On a touchdown, I would assess any downs negated and the distance negated. That would be in addition to the distance assessed and the points negated. On a two-point try, you can’t keep the yards and there’s no such thing as a “down.” So it’s just assessed yards and points for 2.5 Harm. This did take one point off the board, as Buffalo kicked the extra point instead.

The last one I want to talk about was Ryan Bates’ ineligible downfield flag, even though it was just five yards assessed. I want to discuss this one due to my love of analytics. How much do I love them? I’m so intertwined with analytics, you might have noticed I invented a penalty rating metric.

Analytics actually favors declining this penalty in this circumstance, and the Bears proved they aren’t reading these recaps. It was 1st & 10, and Josh Allen failed to complete a pass to Stefon Diggs. Buffalo was not in field goal range. Option A: Accepting the penalty to make it 1st & 15 (what the Bears did). Option B: Declining the penalty to make it 2nd & 10 (what they should have done). Option A is three tries to gain 15, meaning Buffalo needed to average five yards per down to get the first. Option B is two tries to gain 10 yards, also five yards per down.

Why is Option B better, then? A couple of reasons. The first is volatility. While both scenarios involve an average need of five yards per down, sometimes they exceed averages and sometimes they fall below them. Obviously if they fall below, that’s great for Chicago. If the Bills exceed them though, that’s bad. Three chances to exceed expectations is not as good as two. Additionally, Buffalo averaged 6.65 yards per play against Chicago. That means they’re likely to get the first down in either scenario. To stop Buffalo in Option A, the Bears need to keep Buffalo below their average three times in a row compared to twice in Option B.

The second reason is simpler. Three creates more fatigue for the defense than two. You want your team to get off the field on defense as soon as possible, and Option B offers that one play sooner (potentially). In case you’re wondering, Buffalo gained nine yards on the next two plays.

Buffalo didn’t have any one major flag, but still amassed 15.6 Harm, which is firmly on the wrong side of things.


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