Steve Wisniewski’s phone rang the other day. On the line was a reporter, asking how a team can correct a penalty problem.
Wisniewski’s response was quick.
“I can’t help you,” he said. “We never could find the answer.”
Wisniewski was an eight-time Pro Bowl guard for the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders. He played on two of the four most-penalized teams in NFL history. The 1994 and 1996 Raiders committed 156 penalties.
“We had some very talented coaches and some very talented players,” Wisniewski said. “Each and every year we tried to stress reducing penalties because we knew they were costing us games.
“Sadly, I can’t say we really did a great job even though we talked about it; we reviewed them.”
The Raiders led the NFL in penalties in 1991 and every year from 1993 through 1996.
Habitual penalties aren’t as easy to fix as one might think. Words like “concentrate” and “focus” and “discipline” are bandied about when discussing a plan of action.
Rectification requires more than talking about it.
The Buffalo Bills have shown symptoms of having a systemic penalty problem. They’re tied for sixth in penalties entering this afternoon’s game against the New York Jets.
That’s not an obscene ranking, but the Bills have shown a propensity for getting flagged often and at crucial times, and 17 accepted penalties every two weeks would approach the Bills’ record for a season.
“We’re working on it,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “I think you see it’s a work in progress, trying to prevent them, keep educating the players, working in practice. ... We’re working not to get them.”
Marv Levy provided an assortment of janitorial services when he became Bills head coach in 1986. Perhaps paramount was changing a penalty culture.
Between 1983 and 1986, the Bills fielded four of the five most-penalized teams in club history.
“Coaches prior to him, a lot of them would say ‘We have to clean up penalties,’ ” said Jim Ritcher, who played guard for Chuck Knox, Kay Stephenson and Hank Bullough before Levy took over. “Maybe they just paid lip service to it.”
This year’s Bills have been penalized 21 times, four of them declined. They’ve surrendered 130 yards.
Bills offensive penalties have nullified 61 yards of gains and stalled five drives. Defensive penalties have given Bills opponents five first downs, four last week against the Carolina Panthers.
Bills opponents have committed 14 fewer penalties for 64 fewer yards.
Marrone’s SU teams flagged
If the Bills continue to average 8.5 penalties and 65 penalty yards a game, then they will rank second in club history with 136 penalties and fifth with 1,040 yards yielded.
The 1983 Bills hold the record with 144 total penalties. The 1970 Bills rolled up a club-record 1,108 yards in only 14 games.
A two-game snapshot might seem hasty to condemn the Bills as habitual flag-inducers, but they ranked third in preseason penalties at 9.8 per game. Few were committed by rookies.
Marrone’s teams at Syracuse also marched backward more frequently than most programs in the country.
Last year, Syracuse led the Big East in penalties and ranked 113th out of 120 Bowl Championship Series teams at 7.8 penalties a game. In 2011, Syracuse ranked 83rd in the nation at 6.6 penalties. A year before that, it ranked 101st at 7.2 penalties.
“Football’s a game of inches,” Wisniewski said. “We’ve heard that time and time and time again, right? We’ve seen it play out in big games, a touchdown, a first down.
“And there’s such parity in the NFL these days, you just can’t afford to give away 20, 30, 40 yards net difference in penalties.”
What compels a coach to reach for his antacids are pre-snap penalties such as neutral-zone infractions (three for the Bills), false starts (two), defensive offside (two), 12 men on the field (two) or illegal formation (one).
The Bills have been called for 10 pre-snap penalties. Twelve teams have committed 10 or fewer penalties of any kind.
“Those kill me,” Marrone said. “Those are the ones that really get to me. I call those unforced errors, and that’s just a matter of focus and discipline.
“Those are the ones we all get upset at maybe more than a bang-bang play or a grab or a tug. The unforced errors are inexcusable.”
Penalties, even dumb ones, can be overcome. But a team that finishes in the bottom half of the NFL in penalties almost always must own an elite offense or defense or dominate in turnovers to reach the postseason.
Over the past decade, 49 playoff teams have ranked 17th or worse in total penalties. Nearly all finished among the top five in points, total offense, total defense or turnover ratio or ranked among the 10 in at least two of those categories – usually three.
Only six playoff teams since 2003 didn’t meet these criteria, but half of them got into the playoffs without a winning record because, as was the case with the 2010 Seattle Seahawks who went 7-9, somebody had to win the division.
In 1983, the year Michael Jackson unveiled the Moonwalk, the Bills did their version on the field. Penalties moved them in reverse a club-record 144 times.
“That was a big reason why we weren’t winning,” Ritcher said. “We had talent on a lot of those teams.”
Systemic penalties can cause paranoia and conjure conspiracy theories among the players.
While the Miami Dolphins led the NFL in fewest penalties 12 times from 1976 through 1991, less proficient opponents were convinced that was because Don Shula was on the league’s rules committee.
“We would play Miami and felt like we could match up and push them all over the field,” Ritcher said, “but they were disciplined.
“They concentrated on not making the penalty, and we would just shoot ourselves in the foot. We never understood that. We would blame that on Don Shula’s relationship with the league instead of looking at ourselves.”
When Wisniewski was playing, he and his Raider mates just knew NFL officials were out to get them because of owner Al Davis’ recurring conflicts with the league.
Wisniewski, later an intern on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford and a Raiders assistant coach, looks back and admits outside sinister forces were not working against them.
“There’s no conspiracy when a defensive lineman is lined up in the neutral zone,” Wisniewski said. “At the end of the day, the officials do their best to call a clean and fair game. Coaches have to stay on top of it.
“Quite honestly, if you’re not disciplined, that cloud can follow you.”
Levy preached discipline
Ritcher later experienced under Levy how discipline can make a difference.
Levy emphasized penalty avoidance when he took over in November 1986. Ritcher is certain that mindset was instrumental to morphing the Bills into a Super Bowl team.
“The mantra,” Levy said this week from his home near Chicago, “was don’t be dumb and don’t be dirty.
“Some coaches confuse being tough and mean with doing things that inspire players to go beyond the rules. We wanted to play hard, play clean and play to win. But win or lose you play to honor the game.”
Ritcher recalled Levy preaching about all sorts of fouls the Bills had to eliminate. The rundown was included in playbooks handed out each training camp.
“He called it the gift list,” Ritcher said. “He would say, ‘You’re giving the opponent something that he didn’t earn.’ That was pounded into us.”
Bills players quickly learned Levy wasn’t fooling around when it came to penalties. Repeat offenders got benched or released.
Ritcher admitted it was difficult to temper testosterone-fueled emotions on the field, especially when the Bills got away with sloppiness and boorishness under Bullough and Stephenson.
The Bills weren’t exactly fancy lads in their Super Bowl years, though. They ranked 12th, 24th, 19th and 14th in fewest penalties. But they curbed their behavior enough.
“You have to think not of yourself but of your team and how much this is going to cost the team,” Ritcher said. “Sometimes, you’d feel like a wuss not standing up for yourself if somebody took a swing at you, but Marv told us just how important that is.
“Some guys disappeared off the team that were really good players but they didn’t learn. Once we did learn, we became a much better team.”
Once Levy’s edict was absorbed, the players began to hold themselves accountable as the yards were being marked off.
“Prior to Marv,” Ritcher said, “you wouldn’t really say anything to anyone because you had jumped offsides earlier in the game or caused a penalty or you took a swing at somebody. You’d done it yourself, so it was hard to jump on someone else.
“But when it really became important and it sank it for all of us, it didn’t happen after a while because it was understood, ‘Hey, you’re hurting us.’ That made you feel even worse.”
Marrone this week suggested he doesn’t necessarily agree with that sort of policing.
“Whether it’s offside or just some mistakes of turnovers or dropped balls, I found that you don’t really get a lot done when you talk about the peer pressure part of it,” Marrone said.
“I’d rather be in the education part and how we’re going to get better and work on those players to get those things corrected.”
While Levy wouldn’t hesitate to drop a reckless player, Wisniewski recalled Raiders coaches were less willing – or less capable.
The Raiders valued aggression and would forgive a talented athlete’s lack of discipline.
“If there’s any one area where we lacked accountability in my tenure at the Raiders,” Wisniewski said, “I think we didn’t replace people quickly enough who didn’t fit the ideals of what we’re trying to achieve. Players need to be held accountable whether you’re talking about peewee, college or the NFL.
“Mr. Davis didn’t always allow the head coaches to make their own personnel decisions. So it was difficult for coaches to get the personnel in or off the team that they wanted as quickly as they wanted.”
Penalty leads to Bills’ TD
There haven’t been any obnoxious recidivists on Buffalo’s roster so far.
Sixteen players have been flagged. Only tight end Scott Chandler and defensive end Jerry Hughes have two.
The New England Patriots declined both of Hughes’ offside penalties on opening day because the free plays – two pass completions for 33 yards – were productive.
Most agonizing were two plays last week against the Panthers. On a fourth-and-18 play in the third quarter, fullback Frank Summers was called for defensive holding before the punt. That gave the Panthers an automatic first down.
Later in the third quarter, on a third-and-12 play, Bills safety Aaron Williams made a boneheaded decision. He hit leaping Panthers receiver Brando LaFell on the sideline. The ball sailed incomplete, but Williams popped LaFell anyway.
“When it really becomes a serious issue is when it throws you out of whack, which it does at times,” Marrone said.
A costly Panthers penalty set up the Bills’ winning touchdown last week.
Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was called for interfering Bills receiver Stevie Johnson on a pass that was intercepted. The Bills got the ball on the Panthers’ 11-yard line. EJ Manuel threw the decisive touchdown pass to Johnson two plays later.
That was a heartbreaking way for the Panthers to lose. A team that averages 8.5 penalties a week almost certainly will experience the same fate eventually. Perhaps multiple times.
“If you can clean up the penalties – the things you can control – you help yourself,” Ritcher said.