The Detroit Lions this season have provided anecdotal evidence of what has long been asserted through statistical analysis: Penalty totals don't necessarily correlate with winning percentage.
The Lions ranked third in the NFL this season in accepted penalties (128) and second in the amount of yards lost (1,075). They drew national attention for committing three post-whistle personal fouls in their Week 13 game at the New Orleans Saints, but even after cleaning up that issue, they exceeded their season averages in three of their subsequent four games, as the chart shows.
Those numbers coincide with what Lions coach Jim Schwartz preached in the days after that Saints game: The timing and nature of the penalty is more important than the raw totals. Against the Saints, the Lions were penalized 11 times for 107 yards, but also had 113 yards in gains nullified by those penalties. Three offensive pass interference calls against receiver Nate Burleson, along with post-whistle mistakes by receiver Titus Young, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and kick returner Stefan Logan, caused a disproportionate amount of the damage.
"The one thing you don't want to do in a game like that is give away anything for free," Schwartz told New Orleans-area media. "In a playoff game you want to earn it. You want your opponent to have to earn it. That's one thing we need to do better Saturday than we did the last Sunday night game."
Given a choice, I'm sure Schwartz would prefer that his team lower the penalty average Saturday night. But as long as they avoid penalties that, as he said, give away yards for free, I'm guessing he can live with it.