The Buccaneers have committed so many penalties in recent years that fans have grown accustomed to seeing as much yellow on the football field as scarlet and pewter.
Tampa Bay, which was among the 10 most penalized teams in the NFL in 2013 and 2014, outdid itself this season. The 2015 Bucs committed 143 penalties, which was tied with the Buffalo Bills for most in the league, and lost 1,195 yards, second to only the Bills.
How do the Bucs quash the rampant illegal activity? In the midst of its recent thorough and exhaustive head coaching search, the Glazer family — determined to leave no stone unturned — flashed the Bat Signal over Raymond James Stadium, and when Batman arrived for an interview, he shrugged and then vanished. So the unenviable task falls to Dirk Koetter. When he was hired two weeks ago, he talked about how his staff will address the team's proclivity for penalties.
"No. 1, I think we've got to do a great job on educating our players on what are the most important factors on winning and losing in the NFL," he said. "Penalties is in that top 10."
New defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who was the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons from 2008 to 2014, echoed the sentiment days later at his introductory news conference.
"I think it has to be an emphasis point from the very beginning," he said. "We want to be tough, we want to be aggressive, but we've got to play smart."
So a coaching change will lead to a culture change that will lead to more discipline, right? Not so fast.
Replacing a head coach or a coordinator doesn't cure a team's penalty issues. I looked at every head coaching and offensive coordinator change since 2010 and found that, on average, the number of penalties a team commits stays about the same.
Before we get into the data, a note: I looked only at offensive penalties because, as the statistics analysts over at Football Outsiders have found, teams "with more offensive penalties generally lose more games, but there is no correlation between defensive penalties and losses."
Now, you're probably thinking of a number of defensive penalties late in a game that cost the Bucs a win. There was Lavonte David's late hit on New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith with seven seconds left in the 2013 season opener. There was Akeem Spence's shove in Week 9 this season that cost the Bucs 15 yards when they trailed the New York Giants 23-18 late in the fourth quarter and badly needed a stop.
But in general, defensive penalties often represent good play, not bad, according to Football Outsiders.
"Cornerbacks who play tight coverage may just be on the edge of a penalty on most plays, only occasionally earning a flag. Defensive ends who get a good jump on rushing the passer will gladly trade an encroachment penalty or two for 10 snaps where they get off the blocks a split-second before the linemen trying to block them."
One doesn't have to look any further than the Denver Broncos' defense, the best in the NFL this season. The Broncos committed 63 defensive penalties, most in the league. In 2013 and 2014, the Seattle Seahawks featured the best defense, and in both seasons they finished among the top three in fouls.
At his news conference, Smith talked about defenses taking it up right to the edge, and it seems that this is exactly the mentality the Seahawks and Broncos have adopted. And who can argue with the results? Tight, aggressive defense has led them to the Super Bowl.
"As a defense we're going to strive to play on the edge, not over the edge, and that's a fine line," he said. "When teams play on the edge, they're ready to play and they're ready to play the way the game is supposed to be played."
On offense, the expectation heading into the 2015 season was that Koetter would stabilize an offense that was an unmitigated disaster in 2014. Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo was thrust into playcalling. Anthony Collins was less effective at left tackle than a turnstile. Josh McCown threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. It couldn't get any worse.
But one thing did: The Bucs committed more penalties — the most in team history, in fact. Even though Koetter's offense collected more infractions in 2015 (73) than it did in 2014 (67) and more than the defense (53), many would say that the team's overall lack of discipline ultimately fell on head coach Lovie Smith. And on Jan. 6 — three days after the regular season ended — Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer called Smith and told him he wanted to move in another direction. About a week later, the team announced it was promoting Koetter to replace him.
The conventional wisdom is that the Bucs will be a more disciplined team under Koetter. They might … or they might not. When the team fired the lax Raheem Morris after a 4-12 campaign in 2011 and hired the authoritarian Greg Schiano, it worked — for a season. In 2012 under Schiano, offensive penalties fell from 56 to 47, but in 2013, they surged to 61.
There have been 75 head coach and/or offensive coordinator changes since 2010. (Every time a team hired a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator in the same offseason, I counted that as one change. Every time a team kept its head coach but hired a new offensive coordinator, I counted that as one change.) After the changes, penalties increased 38 times, decreased 35 times and stayed the same twice. The net result: an increase of 13 penalties.
Offensive penalties by teams before and after head coach and/or offensive coordinator change
|Season||HC changes||OC changes||Penalties before||Penalties after||Difference|
The Bucs' hiring of Koetter, however, is a unique case. Teams rarely promote from within the organization. Since 2010, only one other team has promoted its offensive coordinator to head coach: the Oakland Raiders, who in 2011 turned to Hue Jackson after they declined to pick up Tom Cable's option.
When the Raiders hired Jackson as their offensive coordinator in 2010, they saw an increase in offensive penalties, from 54 in 2009 to 68. But after Jackson's promotion to head coach, offensive penalties dropped to 57. It's just one example, but for those looking to extract meaning, Jackson's experience might suggest that Koetter's familiarity with the team could help it buck the trend.
Other reasons for optimism:
• Since 2010, 17 teams hired a new head coach and/or offensive coordinator after a season in which the offense committed 55 or more penalties. Only three offenses saw an increase in penalties the season after the hires: the 2012 St. Louis Rams (an increase of one), the 2014 Bucs (an increase of six) and … the 2015 Bucs (an increase of six). The other 14 offenses saw an average decrease of 12.6 penalties.
• From 2010 to 2014, Koetter's offenses in Jacksonville and Atlanta committed about seven fewer penalties than the league average each year, according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2015.
• When Koetter was the offensive coordinator and Mike Smith was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville in 2007, the Jaguars committed the fifth-fewest penalties in the league.
Plus, the Bucs relied heavily this season on rookies who will almost certainly play cleaner football in 2016. The problem with that assumption is that three of the four most penalized Bucs weren't rookies. After committing four fouls in his rookie season, Mike Evans committed a whopping 10 in his sophomore season, four more than the next highest receiver. His five offensive pass interference penalties equaled or beat the total committed by 29 teams.
Most penalized Bucs in 2015
|Player||Total||False start||Off hld||Off pass int||Offsides||Def hld||Roughing the passer||Unnec roughness||Other|
|Gosder Cherilus, RT||11||4||3||0||0||0||0||1||3|
|Mike Evans, WR||10||1||1||5||0||0||0||1||2|
|Donovan Smith, LT||10||4||4||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|Logan Mankins, LG||8||4||3||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|William Gholston, DE||7||0||0||0||0||0||1||4||2|
|Ali Marpet, RG||7||1||4||0||0||0||0||1||1|
|Jacquies Smith, DE||7||0||0||0||2||1||1||0||3|
|Jameis Winston, QB||7||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7*|
|*four delay of game penalties, three intentional grounding penalties|
Can we expect left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet to reduce their penalties in their second seasons? That's not a safe bet, either. Since 2010, offensive linemen selected in the first or second round of the NFL draft have committed more penalties per game during their second season.
Penalties by offensive linemen drafted in first and second rounds
|Draft year||Penalties per game rookie season||Penalties per game next season|
So while we very likely could see some regression in Bucs penalties in 2016 just based on the fact that it would be difficult to commit many more, expecting a sudden plunge in Koetter's first season as head coach is a bit quixotic. Recent history shows us that coaching changes alone don't necessarily translate into fewer penalties. Perhaps the change that could benefit the Bucs the most in the seasons ahead is continuity.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics. Statistics from profootballreference.com, nflpenalties.com and footballdb.com were used in this report.