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Does limiting penalties increase chances of success?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets have received a lot off criticism from fans throughout this preseason for their ineptitude on the penalty front. The Jets have compiled 27 penalties throughout their three preseason games - that average of 9.0 per game would place them near the top of the league in any regular season.

I was curious to find out - what is the relation between penalty totals and winning in the NFL? Penalties seem awful. One tiny mistake by one player, such as clenching another man’s jersey, can wipe out the positive work of ten other players. Penalties can just stab a team’s momentum and confidence straight through the chest.

The question is, in the long run, does piling up those heartbreaking flags really crush your chances of winning?

To try and get a gauge on the relation between season-long penalty totals and playoff success (which is what ultimately matters most when judging team success), I looked back at the past nine seasons and counted how many teams in the top and bottom 10 groups of penalty counts by season won at least one playoff game that year. Here are the results.

The difference between the two sides was very stark - but not in the direction you would think. Over the past nine years, there has not been one season in which more teams ranked in the top ten of fewest penalties won a playoff game than did teams ranked in the top ten of most penalties.

On the other hand, penalties have not correlated with success in terms of winning regular season games. The team with a higher penalty total in a game compiled a 98-136 record in the 2017 regular season, a .418 win percentage. Here is a look at the win percentages of teams in the regular season based on whether they had more or less penalties in a given game over the past few years.

14 teams in 2017 compiled more penalties than their opponents over the course of the year. Though the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were a member of that group, only 4 of those 14 (29%) teams made the playoffs, compared to 8 of the 18 (44%) teams with equal or fewer penalties than their opponents.

That correlation of a positive penalty margin resulting in a better shot at the playoffs was also true over the previous two seasons, but has been much closer in the past.

So, it seems that on the whole, limiting penalties in relation to the opposition does increase a team’s chances of winning a regular season game or making the playoffs. However, teams who compiled more penalties in total over the course of a season trended much stronger towards success in the playoffs than teams with low penalty totals. Does this suggest a high level of aggression and physical play is the key to building a team that has success in the playoffs? Or, have recent playoff contenders simply been great enough to overcome their deficiency in the penalty department?

What do you think? What is the value of success or failure in the penalty department?