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Lions Penalties: Breaking Down The Historically Bad Numbers

If you've watched a Lions game this season, it doesn't take long to figure out penalties are a major issue for them. Every game this season the Lions have been good for at least seven accepted penalties a game, and five times this season they have had at least 11 penalties that were accepted. To say the least, the Lions are shooting themselves in the foot quite a bit with the amount of flags they are drawing week in and week out, so I decided to look at the numbers available on the NFL Game Statistics Information System website. The site provides a ton of information on penalties, and what I found probably won't surprise you.

So far this season, the Lions have committed 99 total penalties, 11 of which were declined. On the 88 penalties that were accepted, they racked up 656 penalty yards and nullified a total of 239 yards on offense and special teams. In all, the penalties have stalled 18 drives, which means that no first downs were achieved and no points were scored following the penalty.

While the numbers look bad on paper and put the Lions at the bottom of the league as far as penalties go, how do they compare to what the Lions have done in the past? The NFL GSIS website provides data going back to the 2000 season, so I decided to break down the numbers for each season since then. Obviously the times have changed a bit since 2000 with penalties, and some years certain calls were emphasized more than others. But it's interesting to put the 2010 Lions' penalty numbers into a historical context, which does show you just how undisciplined they have been this season.

Number of penalties

Year Total Penalties Declined
2000 118 12
2001 136 20
2002 132 28
2003 127 20
2004 144 23
2005 141 26
2006 138 22
2007 114 14
2008 104 15
2009 119 21
2010 so far 99 11
2010 projected 176 20

The highest total of penalties the Lions have had in a season going back to 2000 is 144, which they pulled off in 2004. The 2010 Lions are on pace to have 32 more penalties this season. In fact, they have played only nine games and are only five penalties away from matching the number the Lions had in all of 2008. Of course, the Lions went 0-16 that season, so there is more to a team than the number of penalties you have, but still, it's alarming to see how high their number of penalties is already this season.

(Note: The declined penalties category is not in addition to the total penalties category, but rather it is how many of the total penalties were declined. Originally I thought they were separate categories that had to be added up for the total number, but that's not the case. For example, the Lions have been called for 99 total penalties this season, 11 of which have been declined. That means 88 penalties have actually been enforced on the Lions this season, but overall they have had 99 called against them.)

Shooting themselves in the foot

Year Penalty Yards
Nullified Yards
Stalled Drives
2000 805
2001 1081
2002 916
2003 859
2004 1000
2005 838
2006 939
2007 675
2008 753 179
2009 768 115
2010 so far 656
2010 projected 1166 425

Considering how many penalties the Lions have already gotten, it probably shouldn't be too surprising that they are on pace to record a total of 1166 penalty yards this season. This category is all about how many yards the Lions go backward or give to the other team because of penalties that are accepted, and right now they are on pace to have 85 more penalty yards this season than the next-higher number since 2000.

Perhaps the most troubling stat listed above is in the nullified yards category. Nullified yards are exactly as the name suggests -- the yards gained that are taken away by a penalty, both offensively and on special teams. The Lions have already nullified 239 yards this season. The highest amount of nullified yards since 2000 was 399 in 2003, and the 2010 Lions are on pace to have a total of 425 nullified yards this year. I guess on the bright side this shows that the Lions are moving the ball, but the problem is penalties keep taking away positive plays. (Note: Some of these numbers seem off, so I will try to go back and double check them if I have time.)

The final category in the table above is stalled drives, which doesn't necessarily reveal a whole lot. Drives can be stalled for reasons beyond penalties, but I threw it in there just so you could get a look at the numbers. This is the one category I wouldn't read too much into, though.

(Note: These numbers are based on the accepted penalties only and not the total number of penalties. The reason being that on declined penalties, yards aren't nullified and the penalty yards aren't taken into account.)

Common penalties

Year False Start Offensive Holding Offside/Encroachment/Neutral-Zone Infraction
2000 27 23
2001 19 23
2002 14 27
2003 23 38
2004 24 25
2005 27 18
2006 34 24
2007 33 8
2008 23 21
2009 26 18
2010 so far 19 14
2010 projected 34 25

The final thing we will look at in this post is what kinds of penalties have been ravaging the Lions. Since 2000, the most common penalties for Detroit have been false start, offensive holding and the combination of offside/encroachment/neutral-zone infraction. Looking at this year's numbers, things are pretty balanced, with false start penalties leading the bunch by four over offside/encroachment/neutral-zone infraction, which is just one ahead of offensive holding.

Looking at the projected numbers for 2010, the Lions are on pace to match the single-season high for false starts going back to 2000. In 2006, the Lions had 34 false starts, and right now that is how many false start penalties the 2010 Lions are on pace for. The on pace number for offensive holding isn't nearly as bad, but then again, I don't know if you can read too much into the offensive holding numbers. They are all over the place from year-to-year, so I think those numbers are more about how strict the NFL wants to be with holding calls. For the defense, however, there isn't exactly much judgment that goes into offside/encroachment/neutral-zone infraction calls. Usually those are pretty cut and dry, and the 2010 Lions are on pace to tie the second-highest number in that category since 2000, just one behind the single-season high in the last decade, which was 28 calls in 2004.


I knew the Lions were racking up a lot of penalties this season just from watching the games, but I didn't realize the numbers were this ugly. The 2010 Lions are well on their way to passing by many of the single-season totals for penalties going back to 2000, which is no easy task. The Lions teams from the last decade are some of the worst in NFL history, yet this year's team is showing a lot less discipline in the penalty department. While numbers can change from year to year with the addition of more penalties and more emphasis on certain calls by the NFL, things like false starts and jumping before the snap on defense are just dumb mental mistakes.

Right now, those calls are the two leading causes of the Lions' penalty woes, which is something Jim Schwartz and company must fix going forward. Those kinds of penalties aren't why the Lions have nullified so many yards already this season (that stat actually suggests the Lions are moving the ball), but they are responsible for giving the other team free yards and moving the Lions' offense in the wrong direction. Good teams like the Eagles and Jets, which are toward the bottom of the league in penalties like the Lions, may be able to get away with constantly being flagged, but Detroit doesn't have that luxury. They can't keep shooting themselves in the foot if they want to win games.

While injuries have been the biggest issue for the Lions this season, specifically at the quarterback position, that is a case of bad luck. Constantly moving before the snap or jumping offside is just dumb football. I guess the bright side is this type of error can be corrected going forward whereas an injury can't be fixed so easily, but Schwartz and the other coaches better fix this issue quickly by instilling some discipline. If not, I doubt the Lions will win a whole lot of games the rest of this season, regardless of who the quarterback is.

Up Next

Continuing this series on penalties, I will next take a look at the starting offensive line and their penalty numbers both this season and since each player came into the league. Also, I will focus on one particular offensive lineman who is on pace to make some history of his own this season when it comes to penalties.

UPDATE: I changed some of the numbers, as a few were off.

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