Something bothered me about the late base hit penalty on Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai in the AFC Championship Game. It wasn’t the decision, which was correct, or the rule, which made sense. It’s not that the officials called the penalty at such a critical moment in the game; the definition of a penalty should not change with two minutes to go just because fans and the media might be annoyed by its impact on the game.
No, what bothered me was the punishment.
Fifteen meters for that?
This is, I think, one of the fundamental problems with NFL officiating today. Too often, the punishment does not fit the crime. Imagine a five-meter penalty in this situation. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes went over the Bengals’ 42, which would have meant a 60-yard field goal attempt had they tried it. After a five-yard penalty on Ossai, the Chiefs would have moved to 37, which would have meant a 55-yard field goal. That’s a significant difference, but not as big as Kansas City trying for a 45-yarder, which happened.
I’m not just reacting to what happened this weekend. A generation ago, the NFL’s rules for late hits and hard setter hits were for players trying to injure an opponent. Now they mostly punish players who don’t work hard enough to avoid an opponent. It’s a big change. Yet players are still penalized as if they are trying to injure even though they clearly aren’t.
How many times have you seen a rough setter penalty that wasn’t rough at all? Those types of plays shouldn’t give the offense 15 yards and a first automatic test. Do five meters and no automatic first try by default. Then give the referees the right to impose an additional personal foul penalty of 10 meters if they think there was bad intention.
It feels like teams are committing more penalties than ever before, but that’s not really the case. This only seems to be the case because the penalties that are called have an outsized effect on the results of the games. Consider:
According to Pro Football Reference, in 1992 the average team committed 96 penalties during the season, 20 of which resulted in a first down.
In 2022, the average team committed 95 penalties. But 28 resulted in a first try.
You might not realize it at first glance, but it’s a big change. A penalty in 2022 is 41% more likely to result in a first down than a penalty in 1992. More first downs mean more scoring opportunities. And that means different results.
The NFL has made many adjustments to its rules in recent years, both to make the game safer and to make it look safer. And with each tightening of the rules, the players end up adapting. Coaches teach them what to do and what not to do. That’s why the Bengals didn’t complain about the Ossai call-up; they know he committed a penalty. But while the NFL has essentially added a layer of soft penalties, it punishes them the same way hard penalties do.
What I propose here is not revolutionary. The NFL has long made the distinction between running into the kicker (five yards) and roughing it (15 yards and an automatic first down). Some NBA fouls are flagrant and some are just fouls. Some NHL penalties are two-minute minor penalties and some are five-minute major penalties, and the difference often comes down to whether the offender put their opponent in danger or not. The NFL should apply the same approach to penalties like late hits and setter hits.
Any change can lead to unintended consequences. My main concern here would be to add to a regulation that is already too long, which would complicate the work of already overworked officials. But I think the adjustment for referees would be relatively minor. We change the punishment, not the rule. That’s why five yards and no automatic first down should be the default. Personal fault should be assessed in the rare event that something egregious occurs. They already do this when players drop their helmets or hit helpless receivers.
It could be argued that softer punishments would induce players to commit more penalties and therefore compromise player safety. But I don’t think so. False starts are five-yard penalties, and I’ve never seen a player commit a false start on purpose. Giving the offense five yards and a chance to repeat the down (or get a first down if they are within five yards of the marker) still punishes the defense. He just punishes the defense appropriately.