NFL 2023 Penalties by Team

NFL 2023 – Referees & Penalties – Midseason Review

NFL 2023 Penalties by Team
NFL 2023 Penalties by Team


In this article, we are going to look into the influence referees and penalties have on a typical NFL game and season.  First, all the penalty data comes from  If you would like to reveiw any of the data here, or data going back 10 years, you can do so on their site.

Let’s break this article down into parts:

  • What influence do penalties have on the game?
  • What penalties are being called this season in comparison to pervious seasons?
  • What are the issues and fixes?

What influence do penalties have on an NFL Game?

I want an Easter Egg!  I want an Easter Egg!.  I want an Easter Egg! – NFL Penalties & EPA Value

First we should try to use the data to determine the amount penalties influence the outcome of NFL games.  To do that we are going to look at two charts:

  • Win % by Penalty Calls Differential
  • Win % by Penalty Yardage Differential

Let’s start with Win % based on the difference of total penalties called against each team.  In the chart below you will see the penalty differnces , amount of  times a difference occured, team records, & Win %.

Look at the range from 8 Fewer to 8 More in the win % column.  You will see almost a direct relationship between penalty difference and Win %.  The less penalties called against a team, the higher its chances of winning.  Outside the 8 Fewer to 8  More range we get into smaller sample sizes, so we are going to see more chaos in the records & Win % numbers

Win % by Penalties called against Difference
Win % by Penalties called against Difference


How about the relationship between Penalty Yardage and Win %, will we see the same thing there?

We have many small ranges in this chart so we are going to see a bit of chaos, but again if you look from 60-64 Fewer to 60-64 More range, you will again see a strong correlation between Win % and penalty yardage differential.

Win % by Penalty Yardage Differential
Win % by Penalty Yardage Differential


Therefore, the amount penalties called against a team, and/or the more penalty yardage called against a team relative its opponent, can swing Win % about 10% in either direction.   Thus this +/- 10% influence is about the influence referees can have on any single game, assuming they dont go completely flag crazy against one team.

What penalties are being called this season in comparison to previous seasons?

The following chart will show NFL Penalties over the past 5 years broken down by quarter, offense, defense, ST, amount of penalties and penalty yardage.  As you can see, if we project out the 2023 penalties, we are headed for the most penalties called in a season since 2019, and the most penalties called on the defense since 2020.  So it is fair to say, based on the projections, that referees are having more of an influence in 2023 than they have had since at least 2020.

NFL Penalties 2019 - 2023
NFL Penalties 2019 – 2023


If they are calling more penalties, what kind of penalties are the calling more of & when are they calling them?

This is the sticky wicket.  Different penalties have different punishments.  All are punished by yardage, but some grant automatic first downs.  However,  automatic 1st down penalties are the drive changers.  When they are taking place late in a game, it is going to appear as though, and in fact it actually may be, a game that is unduly influenced by penalties.

Look a the amount of penalties called in the 4th quarter thus far in 2023(445).  This projects out to about 900 4th quarter penalties in 2023, which again would be the most in the 4th quarter since 2019.

The real damning information comes in form of the following charts. The first is Automatic First Down Passing Penalties FOR each team.  In this chart the team listed is the beneficiary of an automatic 1st down penalty via the 4 main types of defensive passing penalties: Defensive Holding, Defensive Pass Interference, Illegal Contact, & Roughing the Passer.

As we can see, Tennessee has benefitted the most and Chicago has benefitted the least.  And there is a large difference between teams that benefitted most vs teams that have benefitted least.

Automatic 1st down by penalty FOR by team
Automatic 1st down by penalty FOR by team


Now let’s look at the other side, Automatic 1st Down Passing Penalties AGAINST each team.

Here we can see that Jacksonville has been called for almost none of these types of penalties, while New Orleans has been called for 21 of them.  In yardage, the Saints have given up 275 penalties yards that mitigated 171 yeards worth of distance for the team playing them to get a 1st down(ex.  If a team gives up a defensive holding call on a 3rd and 8, then 8 yards are mitigated).

nfl 2023 auto 1st down penalties against by team
nfl 2023 auto 1st down penalties against by team


Now I am going to post the exact same chart, but with the 2022 penalty data included.  This will then allow us to see if there has been a change in the amount of these types of automatic 1st down calls against the defense in 2023.

NFL 2023 - Penalties Calls Changes
NFL 2023 – Penalties Calls Changes


So in 2022, there were 610 of these types of penalties called against the defense for a total of 6529 yards.

In 2023, there are projected to be 695 types of these penalties called for a total of 7348 yards.

The changes:

  • Total calls – up from 2.24 calls to 2.56 calls, an increase of 13.95%
  • Defensive Holding calls – Down 10.87%
  • Defensive Pass Interfence calls – Up 27.98%
  • Illegal Contact calls – Up 26.30%
  • Roughing the Passer calls – Up 27.82%

So while one of the 4 calls is showing a decrease of just under 11%, it is the least damaging penalty(along with Illegal Contact) among the four.  Meanwhile, the most damaging types of calls, Pass Interference & Roughing the Passer are both up nearly 28%(as is illegal contact).  Essentially all the referees have done is changed a few of the defensive holding calls into illegal contact calls.  While at the same time throwing a fairly massive increase of supremely damaging defensive penalties.

And if we simply combine this information, with the information about 4th quarter penalties being up, it means the referees are throwing more of the most damaging types of defensive passing penalties in 2023 than they have since at least 2020.  By doing this they are going to put there influence on games are the very edges of that +/- 10%, as opposed to having less influence over outcomes this year.

Below is a chart showing NET automatic 1st down penalties by team.  It is sorted from team most punished to most helped.  Since all these penalties come with auto 1st down, the Total column shows the amount of free 1st downs a team has given away(negative#) or gained(positive #).

NFL 2023 Net automatic 1st down penalties by team
NFL 2023 Net automatic 1st down penalties by team

What are the issues and fixes?

I see a few major issues and will suggest a couple fixes.  The issues are going to revolve around the referees mindset and logic in calling penalties, which leads to a terrible perception by fans, and the physical conditioning of NFL referees.

The Difference Between Missing a Penalty & Calling a Penalty That Didn’t Occur

To me, this is the single most frustrating thing I have seen regarding refereeing in the NFL this season.  Do I like it when officials miss a penalty? No.   Do I absolutely despise when I see a penalty flag and enforcement of a penalty that didn’t even occur or was wrongly interpreted?  Absolutely YES!

Maybe I am the odd cat on this one, but I would far rather referees miss calls, or not make them, than to create a call.  And this has been happening with frequency this year in the NFL.  You even have the broadcast retired officials(who offer nothing in my opinion) wondering what the referees on the field are looking at.  How much more of a condemnation do you need when the “best” of your profession watch what you do, and at times, they have no idea what you are doing or seeing?

Now let’s boil in that the penalty is likely to be an automatic 1st down penalty against the defense in the 4th quarter, and you have referees having a large influence on games by calling penalties that don’t exist.  I do not mean to say this is happening in every game, every 4th quarter, but empirically I would be comfortable saying it is happening a few times every week.  And when a season is only 17 games long, having even 1 or 2 games overly influence by extremely questionable referee decisions is going to get people angry.

The Physical Conditioning of NFL Referees

This is a real issue.  Your job requires that you somehow keep up with 22 super humans running around doing 4.4 40’s, and 10 sec 100 yard dashes.  There can be sudden changes of direction and the visibility angles are changing by the microsecond.  Wouldn’t you think you would want NFL referees in peak physical condition to simply try to do the best job that they can?

Well take a look at the physical conditioning of most NFL referees and you are not going to be overly impressed.  Do the officials need to be in the same condition as the athletes? No.  Should they be in better condition that a person who sits on the couch stuffing scores of Doritos in his mouth every Sunday? I would hope, yes.  But this clearly is not the case.

There have been numerous incidents of poorly spotted footballs this years, solely because the referee in charge of spotting the ball was nowhere near where the play ended.  I hope my memory is correct, but one egregious one happened this past week in the Bears Saints game involving a Tyson Bagent scramble.  The line judge was so far out of the play, she spotted the ball almost 2 yards short of the line of gain, and short of a 1st down.  The field/side judge had to come over and overrule her and move the ball to the correct spot which was a first down.  But this error was entirely due to the line judge not being in position to see the end of the play.  And the reason for it would appear to be her inability to keep up with the pace of the game.

This example involves a woman referee simply because it is a recent recollection I could point to.   I have seen countless out of shape male line and side judges who were in worst position, and/or worse physical condition, this year.  This is an overall NFL official problem, not something that has anything to do with birth sex.   There are millions of women and men in better shape than the currect NFL referees, and given the training, I am convinced they would make better officials.

The one argument against officials being in better condition, is you want experience on the field.  Experience comes with age, and with age comes a decrease in physical conditioning and performance.  But I do not see this as an issue at all, simply due to the fact that every officiating crew has two spots for older, experienced, less mobile referees: Head Referee & Umpire.  Thus two slots of every crew could be filled with experience, while filling out the rest with the people in the best mental and physical condition to keep up with the game and make sure they put themselves in the best position to referee.


If left unchecked, NFL games in 2023 will be heavily influenced by the referees.  With the massive increase in calling the most damaging types of penalties against the defense late in games, referees are having an outsized influence on the outcomes of close late games.  Their lack of conditioning is resulting in them being in the wrong places at the wrong time, and has led to them creating penalties that didn’t exist solely due to their own poor positioning or interpretation of the rules.

How a league like the NFL can batter its fans over the head with gambling and betting sites, while fully knowing and realizing that their own referees are having an undesired influence on the outcomes of games both for the casual fan, and in particular the bettor the NFL is clearly messaging, is beyond me.  You cannot have fans thinking that some official is losing them substantial amounts of money by being out of shape or ill informed of the very rules they are tasked to enforce.  It is like owning a casino and leading patrons to old, crooked slot machines when you could just as easily make sure the machines are fair and properly maintenanced.

My hope is that the projections for these type of game altering calls will be mitigated by the NFL sending out some kind of communications to their own referees to stop, or at least slow down, making these auto 1st down against the defense calls.  My fear is, this will all fall on deaf, out of shape, ears.

As with all the ratings and analysis, feel free to chime in via the post on Reddit/r/nfl, Practicalist on Reddit, or by sending an email.  Until next week, enjoy the football and best of luck to your team.