October 16, 2008
Earlier this week, it was Tony Barnhardt. Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution runs with another "All these penalties are killing Georgia and whatever happened to discipline, durn it?" piece from its other longtime curmudgeon, Terence Moore:
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but probably not. Ever since Georgia’s silliness in the end zone last season against Florida, the Bulldogs have gone from ranking as one of the most disciplined teams in the country to whatever they are now.
Whatever they are now isn’t pretty, by the way. They are the only Division I-A football team in double digits (11) when it comes to the average number of penalties per game. They have more penalties overall than anybody not named TCU (67 to 64). They also have an absolutely ridiculous number of personal fouls (13) after six games.
Maybe it's just a coincidence (but probably not) that 'whatever they are now' happens to be a top 10 team with an 11-1 record since that foolishness in Jacksonville, immediately following a year and a half of nondescript malaise that included major upset losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt, a loss to South Carolina, near-misses against heavy underdogs Colorado, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and two blowout losses to Tennessee. As a before-and-after, I'm not sure what's 'not pretty' about the 'after.'
Here's the thing no columnist or talking head -- especially he happens to be an ex-coach -- will ever accept: penalties don't matter. Well, they do matter, circumstantially, but not in the aggregate. At the moment, six games into this season, no team has been flagged more often per game than the Bulldogs, and only three teams have been hit with more penalty yards. One of them is fellow top 10 perennial Southern Cal; combined, the five most-penalized teams in the country have a record of 22-7, and four of them (Georgia, TCU, USC and Florida State) only have one loss apiece. Moore notes himself that LSU was the most penalized team in the SEC last year, en route to winning the conference and finishing No. 1 in the January polls, and Florida was the second-most penalized team in the nation in its championship season in 2006. The most penalized team in the SEC in 2005 was LSU, which finished the regular season 10-1 and in the conference championship game. Etc.
When I broke down records across a range of statistical categories at the end of the 2006 season at my old digs, I not only found that the most penalized teams had a better combined record than the least penalized teams, but also, on a micro level, the team with more penalty yards in any given game usually beat the less-penalized team, almost 60 percent of the time. This held across every single major conference, in non-conference games and in bowl games: the more penalized team was always more likely to come out on top.
I always have to add the disclaimer that, indeed, penalties are bad, mmmkay? But only for when they're committed, not how often. If you want to criticize Georgia's lack of discipline and tendency to draw dumb flags, there's plenty of cause for that: take the loss to Alabama, when the Bulldogs kept Alabama's first touchdown drive alive by negating a fumble recovery with a useless (and correct) roughing the passer penalty on 3rd-and-12. Or think of the famous, controversial pass interference flag that took the national championship-clinching stop away from Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Which team had more penalties in that game? Ohio State: nine for 49 yards to Miami's 6 for 30 yards. How many of those yards really mattered?
Or take Washington, the sixth least-penalized team in the country, which stands at 0-6 and was the victim of a single flag -- the much-hashed celebration call on Jake Locker against BYU -- that cost the Huskies more than a wheelbarrow-full of hankies from Georgia wins.
That's when penalties kill a team: when they take points off the board, extend opponents' drives or otherwise take accomplishments away from one team and hand opportunities to the other. It's timing, not quantity. If anything, Georgia's penalties are symptom of the aggressive attitude that's helped the team move into the national elite since dancing in that upset over Florida. I mean, that's what the actual record suggests, if we're allowed to look at facts here.