NFC West: penalties

NFC West roots for Smith and Incognito

August, 20, 2013
Antonio Smith and Richie Incognito played against one another for years when Smith was with the Arizona Cardinals and Incognito was with the St. Louis Rams.

Both players rank among the NFL leaders in penalties for unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct and less specific personal fouls.

Their history dating to their NFC West days came to mind upon reading about Smith pulling off Incognito's helmet and swinging it at Incognito's head. Last season, the NFL fined Smith for kicking Incognito in retaliation for Incognito allegedly twisting Smith's ankle to inflict injury. These are the sorts of grudges we tend to enjoy reading about years later, after players are retired, even if their actions crossed lines. We're looking for evidence players were as emotionally invested as fans tend to be.

Of course, violating the rules isn't a requirement for emotional investment. Plenty of players go all out while avoiding the penalties outlined in the chart below. Six of the 10 players listed have NFC West ties. The penalty counts date to 2006, so the chart is biased to show longer-tenured players.

Filtering to show only the past two seasons only enhances the NFC West flavor as Dashon Goldson (10), Aaron Curry (six), Kam Chancellor (six), Breno Giacomini (six) and Brandon Browner (five) are among the eight players with more than four such penalties over that span. Incognito has four and Smith two.

San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, frustrated over the absence of a late pass-interference call in Super Bowl XLVII, might not embrace a stat ESPN's John Clayton dug up for his latest "Inside the Huddle" video (above). I can help on that front, however.

"In the past 110 playoff games," Clayton reports, "there have been only one defensive holding call and two pass interference calls in the final two minutes."

Good note, and as Clayton reveals, one of those defensive pass interference calls went against the 49ers' Tarell Brown in the divisional playoffs this season.

What about the other one? Glad I asked.

The other pass-interference penalty during the final two minutes of a playoff game helped the Seattle Seahawks force overtime against Green Bay in a wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field following the 2003 season. Referee Bernie Kukar's crew flagged Packers linebacker Nick Barnett for interfering with Seahawks tight end Itula Mili on a third-and-goal play from the 6-yard line. Fifty-nine seconds remained in regulation. The pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Mili had fallen incomplete. The Packers led, 27-20.

The penalty against Barnett gave the Seahawks first-and-goal from the 1. Shaun Alexander scored on the next play and the game went to overtime, where the Packers won on Al Harris' interception return.

So, there is at least some precedent for officials to call pass interference in a goal-to-go situation during the final minutes of a tightly-contested playoff game.

"I would say it exactly like Bill Polian," Harbaugh told 95.7 The Game in San Francisco. "A penalty is a penalty no matter when it occurs in a game. It could occur in the first play of the game. It could occur on the last play of the game, or any play in between. That's the rules of football."
A quick layover in Denver allowed me to rejoin the Super Bowl aftermath conversation via Twitter.

Officiating remained prominent on San Francisco 49ers fans' minds. That's fine by me. Even if you think the Baltimore Ravens played better and deserved to win Super Bowl XLVII -- that is my view, even though expressing it caused one guy to click Twitter's unfollow button in frustration -- there is no rule against discussing how officiating affected the game.

We'll see for years to come clips of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh pleading for a holding call against Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith on the 49ers' last-ditch attempt to win the game on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line. It's a permanent part of the conversation.

Win probability calculations showed the 49ers having a 32 percent chance of winning the game before that fourth-and-5 play. The incomplete pass dropped the 49ers' chances to 6 percent. The change of 26 percentage point was the largest for any play in the game, according to Albert Larcada of ESPN Stats & Information.

A penalty against the Ravens would have given the 49ers first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with one timeout remaining. Their win probability would have jumped to 55 percent in that situation. The difference between 6 percent with no call and 55 percent with a call made the officials' ruling worth about one-half of a victory.

Some have also asked about the play when the Ravens blatantly held multiple 49ers players in the end zone, allowing Baltimore punter Sam Koch to run time off the clock before taking a safety. Officials clearly should have flagged the Ravens for holding on the play. While doing so would not have changed the result of the play, officials are supposed to call penalties when they see them regardless of circumstances to promote the integrity of the game. It's not their job to determine whether a penalty would really matter.

Questions about calls that mattered gain more traction amid evidence officials looked the other way in other situations.

One more thing: Rules would have allowed the 49ers to call for a fair catch on the Ravens' free kick following the safety. Doing so would have compelled San Francisco to attempt a field goal on the next play -- in this case, from the San Francisco 19-yard line.

The Arizona Cardinals tried this unsuccessfully during a 2008 game against the New York Giants. In such a case, the kicking team can execute a drop kick or a use a holder, but all kicks must be executed without a tee. Also, there would be no snap on these plays. Defensive players would have to stand 10 yards off the ball while the kicking team attempted the try.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jerome Boger is the referee assigned to the San Francisco 49ers' divisional-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.

Boger is working with an all-star crew, customary for the playoffs. Regular-season crew tendencies might not apply as much.

With an assist from ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together a chart showing 49ers games Boger has worked over the years.

Boger worked the 49ers' memorable 27-24 defeat at Minnesota in 2009. Brett Favre's late touchdown pass, not the officiating, made that one memorable.

Last season, Boger's crew negated a Michael Crabtree touchdown at Cincinnati, ruling that the receiver had stepped out of bounds. The call was questionable, in my view, and former officiating director Mike Pereira agreed. Also in that game, Boger called a false-start penalty against "the entire offensive line" of the 49ers.

More recently, Boger was the ref for the 49ers' 45-3 victory against Buffalo.

Officials flagged the Seattle Seahawks for illegal contact an NFL-high eight times in 2011.

That comes as no surprise to those familiar with the aggressive, controversial tactics Seattle's big cornerbacks employ.

Here is the surprise: Brandon Browner's penalty for illegal contact during the Seahawks' 24-14 playoff victory Sunday was just the second of its kind against Seattle all season.

Officials also flagged cornerback Jeremy Lane for illegal contact in Week 17.

The Seahawks' divisional-round playoff opponent, Atlanta, incurred a league-low 68 penalties this season, counting declined ones. But even the Falcons suffered more penalties for illegal contact (two) than the Seahawks incurred during the regular season.

Seattle also reduced its penalties for defensive pass interference from last season. Those dropped from 10 last season to five this season.

The chart ranks NFC West teams and their divisional-round opponents by fewest accepted and declined penalties during the regular season.

NFC West penalty watch: Goldson's fine

December, 21, 2012

Objections to NFL fines for unnecessary roughness fall into a couple categories.

Some objections pertain to the rules themselves. Others pertain to rules interpretations.

The first category should cover objections to the $21,000 fine levied against San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson for a Week 15 hit on New England's Aaron Hernandez.

Goldson struck Hernandez in the head area with his own helmet while Hernandez qualified for protection as a defenseless receiver. That's a penalty under the rules.

The 49ers incurred a 15-yard penalty for this particular play. They still came out ahead. The hit rocked Hernandez. On the next play, Hernanez failed to make an aggressive play for a ball, enabling an interception.

Safeties in particular walk a line on these types of plays. They want to dissuade opposing teams from throwing over the middle. They also want to keep their paychecks and avoid potential suspensions.

As the NFL continues to penalize players for hits to the head, we should expect defenders to adjust by lowering their target areas. Opponents could suffer fewer concussions, but taking hard hits to the ribs, back and abdomen is no fun, either.

In this case, Hernandez qualified as defenseless under the rule protecting "a receiver attempting to catch a pass, or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner."

Goldson was flagged under rules prohibiting "forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him."

NFC West penalty watch: Receivers clean

December, 12, 2012
San Francisco 49ers wide receivers had eight penalties last season. They have one through Week 14 this season.

The single penalty for 49ers receivers jumped out when I sorted NFC West penalties by team and position for the latest "penalty watch" item.

Officials flagged Kyle Williams for illegal formation in Week 10. That's been the only penalty against a 49ers wideout so far. The penalty count for San Francisco receivers fell this way last season: Braylon Edwards 3, Michael Crabtree 2 and one apiece for Williams, Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr.

The fouls included three for offensive pass interference and three for illegal blocks above the waist.

The chart includes accepted and declined penalties.

Cardinals, Seahawks draw 49ers-Rams ref

December, 9, 2012
SEATTLE -- Carl Cheffers, the referee assigned to work the Arizona-Seattle game Sunday, was the same one presiding over two controversial scoring plays earlier this season.

Cheffers' crew incorrectly allowed a Carolina touchdown to stand during the Panthers' 21-13 victory over Washington in Week 9.

The NFL issued a statement acknowledging the error.

Last week, Cheffers' crew worked the San Francisco-St. Louis game featuring multiple questionable calls. According to former NFL officiating director Mike Pereira, the crew erred in calling intentional grounding against 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The penalty resulted in a safety, helping the Rams force overtime in a game they won, 16-13. The 49ers disputed the call. Cheffers' crew also called roughing the passer against he Rams' Robert Quinn, who was not fined on the play.

The website Football Zebras grades officials each week, projecting which ones will qualify for postseason work. The site suggests Cheffers' crew is having a rough year and will not qualify. The site says Mike Carey, who worked the Seattle-Chicago game last week, has been assigned to the 49ers' game against Miami in Week 14.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made headlines after Week 7 for asking the NFL whether Seattle's cornerbacks were playing too aggressively.

Seven weeks later, he might want to ask the league whether officials have anything against his own team.

The 49ers are averaging 9.6 accepted and declined penalties per game since defeating the Seahawks in that Week 7 game. Only St. Louis (10.6) has averaged more penalties per game over that period.

San Francisco averaged 6.9 penalties per game previously. The team was tied for the 11th-fewest penalties in the NFL through Week 6.

The chart shows holding penalties accounting for an additional two total penalties per game. The 49ers have been averaging fewer penalties for defensive pass interference and tripping in particular, but not enough to offset gains in other areas.

"That’s something that we’ve got to get a lasso around real quick," offensive coordinator Greg Roman told reporters this week. "49er football is smart, tough, opportunistic football, and penalties certainly don’t fit into that equation.

"We just had too many of them. Some of them we personally didn’t agree with and are just looking for some explanation on, and hopefully we can learn from that and move on."

Mike Iupati (four), C.J. Spillman (three), Aldon Smith (three), Chris Culliver (three) and Ahmad Brooks (three) have the most penalties among 49ers players from Week 8 to present.

Spillman (four), Dashon Goldson (four), Joe Staley (four) and Carlos Rogers (four) had the most among 49ers players through Week 7.

Meanwhile, officials have called fewer penalties per game against Seattle's defensive backs since Harbaugh commented on their play. The average has dropped from 3.3 penalties per game to 2.0 per game.

NFC West penalty watch: DB compliance

December, 1, 2012
Cornerback Brandon Browner committed an NFL-high 19 penalties on his way to representing the Seattle Seahawks in the Pro Bowl last season.

Browner ranks tied for sixth with nine penalties this season. Teammate Richard Sherman has committed only two this season after getting flagged 11 times in 2011.

I was researching whether the most penalized NFC West defensive backs from 2011 had changed their ways when a better idea crossed my mind. Instead of comparing year-over-year numbers for total penalties, I filtered out special-teams plays by selecting only those committed on first, second or third downs. I then divided defensive snap counts by penalties to determine snaps-per-penalty counts for the players in question.

The chart shows results for Sherman, Browner, Arizona's Patrick Peterson, Seattle's Kam Chancellor, St. Louis' Bradley Fletcher and San Francisco's Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver. The final column shows percentage change in penalties per snap. For example, Sherman committed one penalty every 87.3 snaps last season. He has committed one every 354 snaps this season. That represents a 75.3 percent reduction in penalty rate.

Culliver has four such penalties on 455 snaps this season after committing two on 541 snaps last season.

NFC West penalty watch: Live, don't learn

November, 15, 2012
St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford appeared to complete a routine pass to Austin Pettis during a Week 4 game against the Seattle Seahawks.

There was one problem. The Rams had more than seven players on the line of scrimmage. As a result, only the outermost players on each side of the formation were eligible receivers. Pettis had lined up in the slot. Brandon Gibson lined up outside him, on the line.

"Illegal formation, offense," referee Mike Carey announced. "No. 11 [Gibson] covered up No. 18 [Pettis], making him ineligible. It's a 5-yard penalty."

Fox analyst Ron Pitts followed up by saying, "Brandon Gibson, mental error."

The play quickly faded into the background as the game continued and the Rams eventually won, 19-13.

Six weeks later, on a November Sunday at Candlestick Park, the Rams lined up on offense for the first play of overtime. Quarterback Sam Bradford threw deep for Danny Amendola, connecting for an 80-yard gain. The Rams were suddenly in position to score the winning touchdown. Their sideline erupted in celebration.

There was one problem. The Rams had only six players on the line of scrimmage, one fewer than required.

Gibson, the receiver lined up wide to the left, was 2 yards off the ball. This time, he needed to be on the line. Officials flagged the Rams for an illegal formation. The 80-yard pass was negated. The game ended in a tie.

There's a lesson in there somewhere.

As the chart shows, the Rams have committed three penalties for illegal formation this season. That leads the NFC West.

NFC West penalty Watch: Saintly 49ers?

November, 8, 2012
Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco's coaching staff will like what they see in the penalty chart: 13 NFC West players with at least five infractions, and only one of them playing for the 49ers.

Seattle's starting offensive tackles, Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini, have combined for 18 accepted and declined penalties. The Atlanta Falcons -- all of them, not just the tackles -- have committed 34.

Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who led the NFL with 19 penalties on his way to a Pro Bowl last season, has eight through nine games this season.

Arizona leads the NFC West in penalties with 72, fourth-most in the league.

Seattle, after committing 36 penalties in three games with replacement officials, has averaged only 5.5 per game since then. The drop of 6.5 per game is easily the largest in the NFL, followed by a 5.0 drop by Dallas and a 3.7 drop by Pittsburgh.

The Seahawks are committing the fourth-fewest penalties per game under regular officials.

The Rams are committing an additional 3.3 penalties per game under non-replacement officials, the largest gain. The Cardinals have averaged eight penalties per game with and without replacements.

Factors beyond the status of officials come into play.
Seth from Pennsylvania asked during the most recent chat whether the San Francisco 49ers were committing an inordinate number of penalties for delay.

"Why does it seem like Alex Smith has such a hard time with the play clock?" he asked. "This is a trend that I've noticed ever since he's been a starter through three different head coaches, so I don't think it's coaches getting him the play too late. I'd be interested to see stats on how many delay of game penalties he gets, and how many timeouts are wasted on play clock issues."

What I said during the chat: The Jimmy Raye system was a digit system featuring more terminology for each play. That system required more time for relaying the call and more time for making it in the huddle. You will typically see digit-based offenses suffering from delay penalties more frequently. That is why Philip Rivers and the Chargers have had so many of them. The 49ers do lead the NFL in delay penalties since the 2009 season.

Following up: Raye was the 49ers' coordinator under former coach Mike Singletary. The 49ers are tied with Seattle for most delay penalties this season. The Seahawks have cut down on those penalties recently. The 49ers have suffered a recent spike.

Smith entered the NFL in 2005. His 28 career penalties for delay are the third-highest total since 2005. He ranks second only to Carson Palmer if we eliminate from consideration the 2008 season, which Smith missed entirely (Palmer missed all but four games that year).

Those cumulative stats "favor" quarterbacks with staying power. All the players listed have been starters regularly since 2005. Others might have committed more penalties per game. Also, quarterbacks aren't solely to blame for all delay penalties.

The fact that Smith ranks so high on the list does make this a legitimate subject to pursue, however.

NFC West penalty watch: Suspicions true

October, 31, 2012
The guys at had a suspicion the St. Louis Rams' offensive line was racking up penalties at an accelerated rate.

They also had concerns about third-down penalties on defense.

Turns out both suspicions were spot-on.

The Rams have 22 penalties against offensive linemen this season, trailing only Seattle (26). Arizona ranks tied for sixth-most with 17. The San Francisco 49ers are tied for 14th with 14, including 11 over the past four games.

St. Louis leads the NFL in third-down penalties against defensive players. The Rams have 15. Seattle ranks second with 13. Arizona is tied for 11th with eight. San Francisco is tied with Miami and Washington for fewest in the league with two.

Those numbers come from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information. They include declined penalties and those committed during special-teams plays.

$21,000 lesson on blindside block rule

October, 26, 2012
Minnesota Vikings tight end and NFC West alum John Carlson suffered a concussion when the Arizona Cardinals' Rashad Johnson struck him during a punt return in Week 7.

Carlson, who has a history of concussions dating to his career in Seattle, missed the Vikings' game Thursday night. His health is obviously the most important factor relating to the play.

The play also produced a $21,000 league fine against Johnson for an illegal blindside hit. Officials levied a 15-yard penalty against Johnson and the Cardinals.

Carlson seemed to see Johnson approaching. He even lowered his shoulder as if to brace for impact. But when Johnson delivered a helmet-to-helmet blow on the play, an official threw a flag. The helmet-to-helmet aspect of the play was what referee Terry McAulay emphasized when announcing the penalty as a personal foul for unnecessary roughness.

"Illegal blindside block" was the penalty as listed in the NFL gamebook, and that was the notation when the league fined Johnson, according to various reports.

One of the NFL definitions for a defenseless player is one who "receivers a blindside block when the blocker is moving toward or parallel to his own end line and approaches the opponent from behind or from the side."

Whether Carlson saw Johnson coming doesn't seem to be pivotal to the ruling or the fine. Carlson was moving parallel to his own end line. Johnson approached from the side and and struck him. Johnson made helmet-to-helmet contact, too.

That's a penalty and a fine, according to the league.