Bill Belichick has been less than thrilled at the amount of penalties this year. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
For a Bill Belichick team, the numbers are astounding.
Through the first three games of the season, the Patriots have been flagged for 30 penalties and 322 yards (not counting penalties that were declined or offset). New England is third in the league in penalties incurred (the Niners are first with 36, followed by the Steelers at 31), and leads the league in most penalty yardage (the Rams are second at 305).
Following 15 penalties in their second regular-season game against the Vikings — the most for any Belichick team in one game — the Patriots managed to cut back slightly Sunday against Oakland, finishing with six for 95 yards.
“It was one of the best things we did [Sunday],” Belichick said after the narrow escape against the Raiders. “We had fewer penalties in all three phases of the game. That was certainly a positive. We need to play more that way. It wasn’t perfect, but that was an improvement in all three areas.”
There was a marked improvement across the board, but at the same time, if the 2014 Patriots stay on their current pace, they’ll finish the year with 160 penalties and 1,717 penalty yards. That would set a mark for a Belichick-coached Patriots team (the 2003 team had 111 penalties and 998 penalty yards) and break the franchise record for penalties in a season (114, set in 1985) and most penalty yards in a season (1,051, set in 1992). It also would set an NFL record — the current league mark is 158 penalties, set by the 1998 Chiefs.
The penalties are all the more remarkable considering the fact that the Patriots were one of the least-penalized teams in the league last season when they took 69 penalties for 625 penalty yards, finishing second to the Colts in fewest total penalties and third in least penalty yards, trailing only Indy and Miami. It’s also interesting that all of this has taken place without cornerback Brandon Browner, who has been serving his four-game suspension to start the year. In his career with the Seahawks, Browner established a knack for physical. punishing play, but it was a style that drew plenty of attention from officials. He took five penalties in eight games in 2013, and he was flagged for 10 in 2012.
The popular narrative is that the increase in flags for the Patriots simply is representative of the new points of emphasis this year. But while we did see an increase in flags over the first couple of weeks of the preseason, the penalty numbers have come back to earth, and as a result have been relatively comparable to what we saw last year. According to Pro Football Reference, over the course of the first three weeks of the 2013 season there were 618 penalties called. With one game left in the third week of the 2014 season, there have been 645 penalties. An increase, yes, but not the dramatic spike that many believed would take place across the league.
As it relates to the Patriots, through three games it appears the crackdown on hand-checking and physical play by defensive backs hasn’t been the heart of their penalty problem. The Patriots have been flagged twice for defensive holding and have taken no penalties for illegal contact. New England has taken three defensive pass interference calls in three games, with two of them going against Logan Ryan. If there’s one player who has struggled the most with the points of emphasis, it’s been Ryan. The second-year defensive back out of Rutgers leads the team with four penalties — including one defensive holding and two defensive pass interference calls — and 73 penalty yards.
Instead, most of the penalties this season have come up front. The offensive line has been flagged more than any other positional group, having taken nine penalties through three games, almost one-third of the total calls against the Patriots. Offensive holding has been the most common penalty against the Patriots this year (six), with false starts (four) second.
To be clear, leading the league in penalties doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be an elite team. After all, the Seahawks led the league in penalties last season but still managed to win the Super Bowl — Seattle was whistled for 128 penalties and was assessed 1,183 in penalty yards, both tops in the league. And then, there’s the fact that the two teams left standing at the end of the 2013 season were two of the top four teams in the league when it came to penalties (the Broncos were fourth in the league in penalties against). But that approach runs counter to the Patriots’ philosophy, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The New England offense is struggling to find some consistency right now, with every yard a precious commodity. Giving some of that yardage back because of an infraction is a luxury the Patriots cannot afford.
In the end, since he arrived prior to the start of the 2000 season, Belichick and the Patriots frequently have rewritten the record books, setting marks in several categories. Only time will tell if the 2014 Patriots will end up penning another, less memorable chapter to add to their franchise history.