The New England Patriots pride themselves in being both a tough and a smart football team. This means that the players know and carry out their assignments and limit technical and mental mistakes to a minimum. There are few statistics that properly reflect this intelligence, though. After all, it is a key component of a team’s overall success – a standard by which New England is annually among the smartest teams in the league.
But while it is hard to properly analyze football intelligence in statistical form, there are certain rules by which a smart team can be detected. One of them: Smart teams do not beat themselves by making mistakes – like committing penalties. Naturally, neither are all penalties alike nor do they properly reflect a team as a smart one. The 2014 Patriots, for instance, were among the league leaders in penalties and ultimately won the Super Bowl.
But one thing is sure: Penalties rarely ever help your team and the smart thing is trying to avoid them whenever possible. With that in mind, the 2016 Patriots have been one of the smartest teams in the NFL yet again.
Overall, via nflpenalties.com, New England was flagged 111 times, tied for fourth-fewest in the NFL. Of those penalties, three were offsetting and 15 declined, leaving the Patriots with 93 accepted penalties for a loss of 810 yards. Both the number of penalties and the yardage are the fourth-fewest in the NFL, as the team is well below the league averages in both categories (107.7 penalties/team; 928.0 yards/team).
New England has not only been able to limit penalties in terms of volume, the team also has been efficient in limiting them in terms of regularity. While the average team was flagged every 26.5 plays during the regular season, the Patriots were penalized only every 30.7th play (you guessed it, fourth best in the league).
When it comes to yardage given up per penalty, however, the Patriots do not stack up that well agains the rest of the league. On average, a team lost 8.6 yards per penalty. New England on the other hand, lost 8.8 – only seven teams in the league have a higher yards per penalty rate. The reason for that is the team’s most called infraction: offensive holding.
Holding on offense loses 10 yards and naturally inflates the yardage per penalty; especially considering that the Patriots are among the league leaders in getting called for offensive holding. Overall, New England’s players have been found guilty 28 times – six of which have been dismissed – for a loss of 272 yards; sixth and fifth most in the league, respectively. Offensive guard Joe Thuney has been the main culprit as he has been flagged six times (a seventh was declined).
Thuney, whose nine accepted penalties are the most on the team, also is tied for the lead in false starts with three (Rob Gronkowski has also been flagged three times for moving too early). All in all, the Patriots have seen 17 flags thrown against them in that category – below the league average of 18.4.
New England also is below-average when it comes to its third most-called penalty: defensive pass interference (a spot foul which also increases the per penalty yardage). While teams have been flagged 8.7 times, the Patriots have only had seven such infractions. Justin Coleman and Eric Rowe lead the team with two flags thrown against them.
Overall, the Patriots have been able to limit the number of penalties throughout the regular season – especially easily avoidable ones like unnecessary roughness (3.1 below league average) or unsportsmanlike conduct (1.3 below league average). While not all is perfect, this bodes well for the team heading into the playoffs as it does not look like a candidate to beat itself by committing fouls.