There's nothing trendier in 2016 than railing against the product the NFL is pushing us. From being more and more aware of commercial-kickoff-commercial-one-play-timeout-commercial, to the increased crackdown on celebrations of any kind (Marquette King mercifully excluded), the No Fun part of the No Fun League has been emphasized.
But one thing that is certainly less subjective are the penalties that teams have accrued this year. Conversely, there have been key no-calls that could have changed the courses of games, the most recent being Richard Sherman's offsides call Thursday night against the Buffalo Bills (rather than being flagged for rouging kicker Dan Carpenter). It all seems so excessive, so arbitrary.
But is it?
We're at the NFL's halfway point (and just beyond that for some teams) and penalties are an issue, there is no question. They halt the game, extend the process, kill momentum and yes, add to the commercial time that helps draw viewership down. But penalties are not up across the board, though this year's trends speak to a different perspective being taken by the league's officials.
In 2015, NFLPenalties.com counted 3,671 total penalties called against teams, including playoffs. So far this season, there have been 1,889. That's just about halfway to last year's total, so surface-scratching says that nothing is that far different than what it was 12 months ago. However, there are a few anomalies that may point to the overall fed-upedness of football fans to the officials' yellow flags.
The first is the Oakland Raiders, the NFL's most-penalized team through nine weeks. The Raiders have amassed 94 accepted penalties against them for 800 yards in 1,676 total plays (in contrast, the second-most penalized team, the Buffalo Bills, have 72 accepted penalties for 658 yards). Oakland's number rises to 112 in total penalties, including those that have been declined. Of those, 31 have been pre-snap fouls and 68 have occurred on the road. The Raiders are no stranger to collecting flags; last year, the team ranked third in total accepted penalties, with 138 for 1,102 yards. The difference this year is that the Raiders seem to be approaching those numbers far sooner than Week 17 a year ago, a fact that helps increase the overall total of penalties and thus reinforces the notion that penalties are on the rise.
In fact, with 133 games played, the NFL as a whole has amassed 1,889 accepted penalties, an average of 14.2 per game. That's not much different from the 13.7 the league averaged per-game in 2015. But the combination of the Raiders drawing so many flags, Oakland being a good team worthy of the casual fans' attention and also the penalties that happened to be called most often this year has made this an issue. It also doesn't help that the Raiders set the penalties-in-a-game record in October, drawing 23 accepted, for 200 yards, with another three declined and one offsetting. That will inevitably draw attention.
Offensive holding remains the top penalty called, with 402 so far this year. Compared to 2015's tally of 721, we are on pace to surpass that, but not to an alarming degree. What really stands out is the defensive pass interference penalties. Last season, there were 243 -- or .91 per game. This season there have already been 165, averaging 1.24 per game, with the Indianapolis Colts leading the way at 1.22 per game. Greg A. Bedard at Sports Illustrated already lamented the frequency of the DPI calls following Week 3 when the average was 1.25 per game, not too much different than where it stands now.
Those defensive pass interference calls, in particular, are divisive, and are the second piece of this puzzle. Think of the years in which the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco had the services of receiver Torrey Smith -- their signature play became the deep pass interference special, so much so that the Ravens led the league in drawing such calls in their favor in the four years they spent together. As spot-fouls -- where the football is placed at the spot of the penalty, rather than a set number of yards -- offenses get significant benefits from those man-to-man plays that go deep down the field yet fail. In college football, a DPI flag results in a 15-yard penalty; in the NFL it can be 40, 50, 60 yards. The frustration in seeing these penalties, especially when called with this year's frequency, is understandable.
Ultimately, though, the penalties are mostly affecting the viewing experience of the game rather than the on-field play. Oakland may lead the league in fouls, but are 7-2 on the year, one of three teams with that many wins. The average per-game fouls are slightly up from a season ago, but not markedly so. While penalties may be distracting and annoying, we are on course for a typical number of flags flying this NFL season.