Penalties hurt but aren't indicator of failure

There are a bunch of clichés and truisms tied to the NFL. Greg Garber reveals which ones are deadly sins … and which are myths.

Updated: November 30, 2005, 10:51 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Vince Lombardi said, "Football is a game of clichés, and I believe in every one of them."

Be careful, fans of football, which clichés you choose to believe.

Here are five myths that have survived the years. Like any good myth, these are rooted in truths. Yet you might be surprised how marginal their effect can be on a game.

The percentage in parenthesis, based on 2003 and 2004 NFL regular-season statistics, refers to the probability of winning for each particular myth.

SINS AND MYTHS
There are a bunch of clichés and truisms tied to the NFL. After crunching some numbers, we figured out which ones are deadly sins … and which are myths.
• Truisms and untruths
• Five deadly sins
• Big-time myths
Myth No. 1: Fewest penalties wins (54 percent)

Last Sunday, the Giants were whistled for an astounding 16 penalties -- the highest team total in 56 seasons. Offensive tackle Luke Petitgout was responsible for five false starts at raucous and reverberating Qwest Field in Seattle.

"This was my worst game ever," Petitgout said afterward. "To lose makes it all that much worse."

Yes, the Giants lost to the Seahawks 24-21 in overtime. But they would have won if any of Jay Feely's three field-goal attempts down the stretch had been good.

The point is, penalties are not necessarily fatal. Fifty-four percent is hardly an overwhelming majority. This goes against the adage that players have heard since Pop Warner: Penalties are evidence of a lack of discipline. If a team takes care of business in other areas, it can survive a penalty surplus.

In 2003, there were five consecutive weeks in which teams with the fewest penalties had a collective losing record of 19-39. In 2004, there were five straight weeks of nonwinning records (34-43).

The Cincinnati Bengals illustrate the point nicely. They are a tidy 3-2 in games they have been assessed more penalties than the opposition. Consider: They took 17 penalties for 115 yards and still managed to throttle the Vikings (seven penalties) 37-8. In the 16-10 victory over the Texans (nine penalties), the Bengals were whistled for 14 infractions worth 117 yards.

Some things, however, never seem to change. The Oakland Raiders, at least, remain their stereotypical selves. Cause: Their 113 penalties lead the league. Effect: They are a dismal 4-7.

Myth No. 2: Highest average per carry wins (55 percent)

This one's interesting. You would think the average-per-carry would be a deal-breaker in an NFL game in which running is the gold standard. You would think …

But in 2003, it was virtually a statistical dead heat (51 percent). So what gives? In the end, the more important statistic -- keeping in mind the importance of time of possession and turnovers -- is total carries.

Two examples from this past week's games: The Giants averaged 5.7 yards per carry at Seattle -- a full two yards more than the Seahawks -- but the Seahawks ran the ball five more times (34) and ultimately won. The Buccaneers had a better average-per-carry than the Bears (4.3 vs. 3.6), but Chicago squeezed off eight more carries (33) and won the game by a field goal.

Take the curious case of the New Orleans Saints. They're 2-3 when the opposition's average-per-carry is higher but, almost inexplicably, they're 1-5 when they have a higher average per carry. They were 0-5 before the win Sunday over the Jets.

Although the three teams with the highest average-per-carry -- Atlanta (5.1), Denver (5.0) and Seattle (5.0) -- could all be playoff teams, how do you explain Carolina? The Panthers are 8-3, but their average-per-carry is a dreadful 3.0, the worst figure in the league. New England and Dallas are both sitting in first place, but their numbers (3.6 and 3.4, respectively) are woeful.

Myth No. 3: No. 1 conference seed advances to Super Bowl (50 percent)

Next to Myth No. 3 in Webster's Dictionary, you will find a picture of the snakebitten Pittsburgh Steelers.

They fashioned the AFC's best record in 2001, at 13-3, and had the Patriots where they wanted them in the second quarter of the AFC championship game -- in a close one with young starter Tom Brady knocked out of the game. But Drew Bledsoe came off the bench to help defeat the Steelers, 24-17. New England went on to win its first Super Bowl, a memorable 20-17 victory over the Rams.

Troy Brown
Troy Brown's return for a TD helped deny the Steelers a Super Bowl berth following the '01 season.

Three years later, it happened again. The Steelers ripped through the 2004 regular season, winning 15 of 16 games. One of those wins came on Halloween at Heinz Field, 34-20 over those pesky Patriots. But in the AFC title game, New England -- 14-2 in the regular season -- prevailed again, 41-27, and went on to win its third Super Bowl in four seasons.

Two losses at home in the conference title game final in four years -- not quite an advantage for the top seed. In the previous five years, only half of the 10 No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Super Bowl. The 50 percent ratio applied to the 1990s as well.

In 2000, the Baltimore Ravens didn't even win their division, going 12-4 and finishing a game behind Tennessee, but they managed to win Super Bowl XXXV, smoking the Giants 34-7. The previous season, those same Titans were second to Jacksonville in the then-AFC Central, but won at Jacksonville in the AFC title game and came within a yard of victory against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Other wild cards have won the final game -- Denver (1997), and Oakland (1980) -- but today's evolving parity seems to have made this an increasing phenomenon.

Myth No. 4: A 300-yard passer usually wins (46 percent)

On the surface, this just can't be possible. Can it?

Three hundred yards is a lot of real estate in an NFL game. The numbers say that when you produce a 300-yard passer, you have a better chance of losing.

On Nov. 13, there were four 300-yard passers:
• Miami's Gus Frerotte (360 yards).
• Arizona's Kurt Warner (359)
• Oakland's Kerry Collins (310).
• St. Louis' Marc Bulger (304).

Despite completing a collective 59 percent of their passes and posting six touchdowns, all of them lost their games.

Warner, one of the great rags-to- riches stories in the history of the NFL, can still throw the ball. He has thrown for 300 yards in four games -- and lost every one, including last Sunday's game against the Jaguars. Warner's former teammate, Eli Manning of the Giants, burned Seattle for 344 passing yards. But you know what happened there.

Jake Plummer
AP Photo/Bill KostrounThe Broncos have been doing just fine without 300-yard performances from Plummer.

Bulger, of the Rams, is also 0-4 as a 300-yard passer, including his spectacular 40-for-62, 442-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Giants in the fourth game of the season. That game underlines why the 300-yard statistic often results in a loss. The Rams trailed 17-7 after the first quarter (see Sin No. 1) and were playing from behind the rest of the way. Bulger threw three interceptions (Sin No. 2) in a contest that dictated that the Rams pass, almost from the beginning.

The corollary is Denver's Jake Plummer. He's throwing for fewer yards this year, supported by the Broncos' relentless running game. He's hit 300 yards only once this year, 309 in an easy win over the Eagles. Last year he threw for 499 yards against the Falcons -- and lost 41-28.

Myth No. 5: A kick or punt return for a TD means a win (42 percent)

Special teams, we have been told breathlessly forever, are, well, special.

Since the kicking units are involved in their share of plays, special teams must have an impact. When a team returns a punt or kickoff for a touchdown, you would imagine it would tilt the scales dramatically in the typically close games served out by the NFL.

Uh, no.

There have been eight kick returns for touchdowns so far this season, and only two of them -- the Giants' Willie Ponder (Week No. 1 vs. Cards) and Minnesota's Koren Robinson (Week No. 10 vs. Giants) -- helped their teams win.

Houston's Jerome Mathis has two kick returns for scores. On Oct. 23, he went 89 yards against the Colts, but it was the last score in a game Indy won 38-20. A month later, Mathis took one back 99 yards for a touchdown against the Chiefs, but his team still trailed 10-7.

On Nov. 13, the Vikings did something that had never, ever happened in an NFL game. Minnesota returned an interception, a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in a single game -- in the Vikings' 24-21 win over Giants -- and still almost lost.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.