While speed of the game continues to be an emphasis for NFL officials – Commissioner Roger Goodell has referenced that at numerous times – the number of penalties went up again in 2015 and so did the average time it takes to play a game.
Last year, an average of 16.5 penalties per game were called. That’s up only about a half a penalty per game on average from 2014, but after a big jump from 14.1 penalties per game in 2013, the league was likely hoping that number would decline a bit.
There have been, on average, more than 14 penalties called per game for each of the last five seasons.
“Officiating is an art more than a science,” NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said in an article detailing the evolution of officiating in the NFL.
At 16.5 penalties per game, that’s more than 4,200 penalties called each year, but only 276 of the calls were challenged last year and 103 of those were overturned.
The most challenged play was a completed pass, which enjoyed a 46 percent success rate on challenges, but the league has also tried to clarify what is a completed pass in recent years.
At the owners meetings in March, the NFL passed greater protection for horse collars and eliminated all chop blocks. Both of those moves could lead to a further increase in the number of penalties that are called.
Full-time officials have also been a talking point at owners meetings, an idea that Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians supports.
“Full-time officials is not a new issue. It’s been discussed in the league, it’s been discussed through the competition committee for several years,” Goodell said in March. “We believe that at least in a limited form that it’s a positive step, so we agree with Coach on that front. In fact, that’s something we fought for in our last labor negotiations with the officials is to be able to hire a limited number of officials, I think it was 16 or so, so that we would have the ability to have them in the office during the week. We could develop greater consistency, and consistency is really the core of what we’ve talked about all week here in officiating.
“… I do believe, though, from a broader standpoint, whether they’re full-time or part-time, officials are going to make mistakes. That’s just - unfortunately the game is fast and it is difficult to officiate. They do an extraordinary job.”
While the number of penalties per game has risen in the last five years, so has the time of games. In fact, those two data points have mirrored each other. In 2010, the average game time was 3 hours, 4 minutes and 30 seconds with 154.5 plays per game.
Last year, the average game time was 3 hours, 8 minutes and 55 seconds with the average number of plays at 157.6.
The only time in the last five years that game time and number of plays didn’t increase was in 2014, but the 2015 average game time was the highest it’s been in five years.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills tied for the most penalties with 143 last year. The Minnesota Vikings were best with 88. The Bills had 1,249 penalty yards while the Arian’s Cardinals were best with 758.