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Aggressive Nature, Play Often Pays Dividends for NFL Teams

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystMay 15, 2015

The Seattle Seahawks are known for their physical playing style...and the penalties that result.
The Seattle Seahawks are known for their physical playing style...and the penalties that result.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

NFL stadiums might be the closest thing in modern culture to the Roman Colosseum, but rule changes in recent years to make the game safer have aimed to change that. The resulting offensive explosion has led us to believe that the game has evolved—or devolved—into a game more reliant on choreography than physicality.

Things like the air pressure inside a football seem more significant now than they would have 20 years ago. Science has seemingly replaced the brutal art that used to be the NFL’s identity.

Except physical aggression still pays dividends between the white lines. The players most willing to suspend logic and sacrifice their bodies for sport tend to be more successful regardless of the on-field and off-field repercussions.

For as much as the game has changed, new head coaches like Jack Del Rio of the Oakland Raiders still say they plan to turn their teams around with physicality. Del Rio laid out the specifics recently on SiriusXM radio, via Raiders.com:

I was asked yesterday about the mystique; is there a mystique? Let me tell you what the mystique was. It was people knowing they were going to get pounded when they played the Raiders, that there was going to be physicality. There was fear that was developed through the physical play of this football team. We want to bring that physicality back. We want to bring that swagger back, but it has to be the kind of swagger that is controlled, that is calculated, that is fundamentally sound, disciplined and plays winning football.

NFL coaches have long talked about physicality and aggression, but more recently, they’ve added words like “controlled” and “smart” and “disciplined” to their statements as to not advocate for breaking the rules.

Despite this, it’s easy to view such statements as the latest example of coaches stuck in an old way of thinking, and some have dismissed them as offseason fodder for that reason, but physicality never went out of style in the NFL; we just stopped talking about it.

Now, we may be seeing a shift back toward the running game in 2015 as some of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks start to show their age. There also seems to be a renewed interest in building great defenses—especially on teams that don’t have a quarterback who can carry the team.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an introductory press conference for a new head coach in the NFL who didn’t say he wants his team to be more physical, aggressive or tough. However, even teams that haven’t been as bad as the Raiders should be able to benefit from getting more physical.

The hard part is actually getting the players to play with a physical mentality, but there is plenty of proof that doing so is a successful formula. The Seattle Seahawks have been the most penalized team in the league over the last two years and have been to two Super Bowls and won one of them. Clearly, there is something good about penalties, even if the NFL would rather not highlight this fact.

The last three Super Bowl winners have ranked 27th, 32nd and 31st in total penalties. The last three runner-ups have ranked 32nd, 29th and 26th. That means the last six teams to reach the Super Bowl have an average penalty rank between 29th and 30th in the league.  

Road to Super Bowl Paved with Penalties
YearSuper Bowl WinnerPenalty RankSuper Bowl Runner-UpPenalty Rank
2014New England Patriots27Seattle Seahawks32
2013Seattle Seahawks32Denver Broncos29
2012Baltimore Ravens31San Francisco 49ers26
Pro-Football-Reference.com

Fans lament penalties for a variety of reasons, but the recent data suggests teams should take the penalty trade-offs if that means a more physical brand of football. The gain for being aggressive more than offsets any potential loss in today’s NFL for most teams.

Some coaches also consider aggressive penalties less costly than a mental error like missing an assignment. Although coaches keep players in check as best as they can, almost all defensive penalties are aggressive in nature, even if not all of them are due to aggressive play.

“We’re not going to change the way we’re playing,” Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told 710 ESPN in Seattle after officials penalized the Seahawks 14 times for 105 yards in a Thanksgiving Day win over the San Francisco 49ers last year. “The style of play that generates this kind of focus from the officials is somewhat emblematic of us, and I don’t want our guys to back off.”

Is a defensive player jumping offside so bad if the player in question is getting a great jump when he isn’t penalized? Officials flagged Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett 13 times last year, and 10 of them were either neutral-zone infractions, offsides or encroachment.

“We are going to have to play over and above whatever the calls are. We never worried about that or focused on it as a negative,” Carroll said. “We are pretty crazy and wild with the way we play, and we don’t want to change that.”

Many teams have tried to emulate the Seahawks, but most teams aren’t willing to play the physical brand of football they play. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Raiders have gone so far as to hire away defensive coaches in the hopes that they recreate what the Seahawks have.  

Aggressive Penalties vs. Team Success
2014Aggressive Penalty Avg.Avg. WinsWinning Teams.500 or Below
10 Most Aggressive44.79.973
10 Least Aggressive26.37.346
Difference+18.4+2.6+4-3
The Football Database

In 2014, of the 10 teams with the most aggressive penalties (defensive offsides, illegal contact, defensive pass interference, roughing the passer and unsportsmanlike conduct), six of them won 11 or more games and one won nine games. Only the Raiders, the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets had losing seasons.

Of the 10 teams with the fewest aggressive penalties, two had 11 or more wins and one more had nine wins. The other seven teams all won eight or fewer games. The Jaguars were 30th under former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s leadership, so it clearly takes more than coaching for a team to get physical.

In total, the top 10 teams in aggressive penalties averaged about 10 wins, while the bottom 10 teams had about seven wins in 2014. Over the last three seasons, the 10 teams that had the most aggressive penalties averaged more than two more wins than the 10 teams that had the least.

Tiered by Standard Win Deviation From 2012-2014
Tiered by Standard Win Deviation From 2012-2014Data via the Football Database

Nearly 38 percent of the penalties of teams in the top quarter of the league in wins over the last three seasons are aggressive in nature. The rest of the league averages about 34 percent, consistent across different tiers of teams.

Since most of these penalties are defensive, you could make the leap that the common thread is that most are strong defensive teams, although there will be outliers like the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts.

What is paying off for teams is when coaches choose not to focus on penalties and encourage aggressive play. Cheaters may never prosper, but to be successful in the NFL, a little more rule breaking than the opponent may be in order.

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