When Week 4 concluded, the biggest conversation across the NFL revolved around a controversial no-call at the end of the Monday night matchup between the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. But that kind of reticent behavior from officials hasn't been the norm in the early part of the season.
The Buffalo Bills especially have raised eyebrows for their aggressive play under head coach Rex Ryan. In their Week 4 game against the New York Giants, the flags were out in full force. The two teams totaled 28 accepted penalties, including 17 for 135 yards for the Bills -- bringing the team's total to a whopping 47 penalties for 428 yards so far this season.
At this rate, the Bills are on track to finish the year with 188 penalties for 1,712 yards, which would shatter the Oakland Raiders' marks from 2011. That year, the Raiders set NFL records when they were penalized 163 times for a total of 1,358 yards.
Both players and Ryan vowed to get the Bills to clean up their play.
"Make no mistake, we are trying to get it fixed," Ryan said.
"It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing," Buffalo safety Corey Graham said after the 24-10 loss to the Giants. "To go out there and get all those penalties, one after another, dumb penalties, situations where you just have to shut up sometimes. It's one of those situations where we can't afford to do it. We can't spot teams all those yards. We have to be more disciplined. It's very disappointing."
Despite their record pace, the Bills are hardly alone when it comes to racking up penalties. Just a few hours earlier on Sunday, the New York Jets were penalized 163 yards on 14 infractions, but still cruised to an easy victory in Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins.
A record-high 962 penalties have been enforced through the first four weeks, which averages to 15.3 infractions per contest. If that average holds, it would easily be the most in NFL history and a significant jump up from recent seasons.
Penalties per game on the rise
There have been 120 more penalties accepted through the first four weeks than in 2014, when there were 842 penalties and 13.8 per game. In the five seasons before that, there was a consistent average of 12-13 penalties per game through the first four weeks in each year.
The average number of penalties per game usually decreases as the season goes along. As NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told the Washington Post, "Each year at the beginning of the season the players are adjusting to how the game is being officiated. Historically, penalties level off as the season progresses and I anticipate that will be the case this year, too."
But at this rate, the number of penalties per game will reach its highest average ever.
(Stats via Pro Football Reference, does not include declined or offset penalties)
Why has there been an increase in penalties?
One of the main reasons for the uptick in penalties is the increased emphasis on calling illegal contact in the secondary. The NFL made holding by defenders in the secondary a priority heading into last season, as well as pushoffs by receivers who are looking to create separation at the line of scrimmage.
The precautions the league is taking to protect player safety are likely contributing to this trend as well. The NFL just passed five new player safety rules this offseason, and offensive players lobby for calls on seemingly a weekly basis. This is the impetus of Week 3's controversy between Cam Newton and Ed Hochuli -- Newton believed Saints defensive lineman Tyeler Davison should have been flagged for roughing the passer after he shoved the QB to the ground at the end of a roll-out play. (If we're to believe Newton, Hochuli would've given him the call had he been older.)
All of these rule changes have made it far more difficult to play defense, meaning more physical teams are more susceptible to getting flagged in the regular season. But that changes once the playoffs begin. Over the last five years, referees have swallowed their whistles when the calendar turns to January –– relatively speaking.
Heavily penalized teams can still win
Interestingly enough, the Seahawks and Patriots were the second- and third-most penalized teams in the league last postseason, respectively. Perhaps both clubs, which arguably had the two best secondaries in the league, figured the intangible value of playing physically was worth surrendering some extra penalty yards at different points throughout the game.
The more prevalent something is, the less effective it can become. If almost every team is getting flagged at a high rate, then giving up some free yards isn't all that big of a deal.
Conventional wisdom says that picking up penalties is a big deal, since heavily penalized teams are supposed to wind up on the losing end of games, but recent history indicates that the tallying of penalties isn't that big of a problem at all.
Last year, the Seahawks were the most penalized team in the league while the Patriots finished the regular season sixth in penalties. In 2013, the last two teams standing, the Seahawks and Broncos, were No. 1 and No. 4 in flags, respectively. Three seasons ago, the Super Bowl champion Ravens finished second in penalties, while their Super Bowl opponents, the 49ers, were eighth.
At this rate, accumulating penalties may no longer be a black mark for teams, but rather just a cost of doing business. Racking up the flags certainly hasn't gotten in the way of the last three Super Bowl winners. And while the 2011 Raiders didn't reach the playoffs, at least the Bills can take comfort in knowing that a high number of penalties doesn't always doom a team to the losing side of the scoreboard.