Every fan of a football team, college or pro, has complained about officiating and bad calls against their team at some point. Fans of the Cleveland Browns are no different. Many Browns Backers are absolutely convinced that the refs simply don’t call the game fair and square and that the bad calls–or the no-calls, in the case of the stubborn refusal of game officials to call the obvious holds on Myles Garrett–always seem to go against the Browns.
Now a frustrated Browns fan has performed a data-oriented analysis of penalties and, not surprisingly, he has concluded that the Browns have been hurt more than any other team in the NFL by flags. He’s used the information about the number and circumstances of penalties to calculate the impact in terms of EPA, for expected points added, with respect to each penalty assessed against a team. His analysis indicates that the Browns–who have been whistled for 64 penalties, compared to only 45 against the Browns’ opponents–have lost a net of 3.5 EPA per game due to the yellow flags. To make matters worse, the analysis indicates that the team that has benefited the most from penalties is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a positive EPA impact of almost 3.
Does this prove that the striped shirts have it in for the Browns? Not so fast! Some of the penalties against the Browns–like the three lining up offside penalties against the defense in the game against the Bengals–are clearly correct calls, and no one should be heard to complain about those. It’s also possible that the Browns are just undisciplined, and fans can definitely think of times when players lost their cool and made stupid plays. The issue is whether the refs are making more bad calls against the Browns than they do against other NFL teams, and that is really hard to quantify objectively.
The EPA analysis is interesting, but I don’t think it proves that the refs are biased against the Browns–although some Browns fans clearly will argue that it does. In my view what it does show is that the Browns need to specifically focus on avoiding the dumb penalties and the undisciplined penalties, because the number of penalties they are racking up are really hurting them. If they can do that, I’ll take my chances on a bad call now and then.