Why does Cal commit so many penalties?

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Every football coach on the planet emphasizes discipline. It’s one of those buzz words, like controlling the line of scrimmage, taking care of the football or “executing.” Cal football head coach Sonny Dykes has talked about discipline multiple times in press conferences this season. But the idea doesn’t seem to have gotten through to the Bears — against Stanford on Saturday, the team committed its 100th penalty of the season, one short of the most in the nation.

Dykes addressed the sloppy play against the Cardinal in the press conference after the game, saying that it wasn’t the number of penalties but the type of penalties that bothered him.

“We can live with penalties that are aggressive penalties, but we can’t live with penalties that are lack of discipline penalties,” Dykes said. “And today we had a lot of lack of discipline penalties.”

I don’t buy this — penalties are penalties, and it’s hard to win games when you’re giving up 100 yards to the referees half the time like Cal is. Sure, different flags carry different punishments, but Cedric Dozier’s pass interference in the end zone — which might be classified as an “aggressive” penalty — is just as damning for a team as Chris Adcock’s unsportsmanlike conduct on the goal line — which is an obvious “lack of discipline” penalty. They all hurt, and penalties have sunk the Bears the last two weeks.

Cal has committed at least 10 penalties in six of its 11 games so far this year, including in three of their last four. On the season, Cal ranks 125th out of 128 teams in penalties committed per game this season, averaging 9.1 per contest. It’s an abysmal number that explains some of the Bears’ struggles this season.

So, why does Cal commit so many penalties?

I suspected that the number of penalties might just be a byproduct of the number of plays Cal runs every game. The Bears’ hurry-up offense leads to it running almost as many plays as any team in the country, which gives the team more opportunities to commit infractions.

So I measured how many plays it takes teams, on average, to commit a penalty. The results show that the Bears …

… wait for it …

… still suck!

Cal ranks 121st in plays per penalty, an improvement over the per-game numbers that is essentially insignificant. If we are measuring discipline by the number of yellow flags, Cal is as undisciplined as they come.

OK, so it’s not the number of plays. The next suspect is the coaching staff. After all, penalties usually reflect a lack of discipline, and a lack of discipline is a coaching problem. Sure enough, the Bears were also a bad team, penalty-wise (but also by every other metric imaginable), last season. But the Bears were also a team that ranged from “bad” to “terrible” in the last three years of the Tedford era, never ranking above 98th in the country in those last three seasons.

So, is it not coaching, then? What gives? What makes Cal — regardless of coaching — such a highly penalized team?

Another explanation is that bad teams tend to get penalized more. But this arrow points both ways: Bad teams are bad because they’re penalized, but getting penalized is also an indication of lack of talent. Bad players have to commit infractions, for example, when a receiver breaks away, and the cornerback on the play needs to commit pass interference or else give up a touchdown. These penalties are sometimes strategic — it’s better to commit the PI and face first and goal on the one-yard line than give up the sure touchdown — but they are also the signs of players who didn’t do their jobs well in the first place. Good teams naturally won’t get penalized as much because they’ll have less need to — they’ll cover the receiver in the first place — so there is no reason to throw the flag.

This makes sense, at least on the surface. Cal has certainly fielded some crappy teams over the last five years, but there doesn’t seem to be a real correlation with the data that bad teams commit more penalties, like I would have expected. First, Cal fielded an 8-4 team and went to the Holiday Bowl in 2011, yet that year, Cal ranked 113th out of 120 teams in penalties. It would appear that the yellow flags didn’t affect the team much that year.

It’s the same this year. Cal might be committing penalties by the bunch, but good football teams such as USC, Marshall and Baylor are committing even more. Even No. 2 Oregon ranks 108th in this metric. So if there is a correlation between bad teams and penalties, it’s a miniscule one. And, that makes sense — penalties aren’t everything — but I still expected more than that.

That just leaves one thing left — #Pac12Refs hate Cal. It’s so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

Alright, I’m kidding. The Pac-12’s notoriously inconsistent officiating certainly hasn’t helped the Bears, but the conference’s officials don’t have something against Cal. And let’s be real: Do you think Pac-12 officials would be capable enough to pull off this kind of conspiracy without botching it? Let’s move on.

So if the penalties aren’t a byproduct of bad coaching, lack of talent or a refereeing conspiracy, what the hell are they? Why does Cal commit so many penalties every year?

My guess is that it’s a little bit of everything.

Both Dykes and Tedford are coaches who haven’t fielded disciplined teams. You see that this year as dumb infractions and game mismanagement have made me think this coaching staff isn’t the most detail oriented.

I also think a lack of talent has played a part. I’ve watched Cal players commit penalties after they get beat, so Cal’s relative lack of talent definitely matters.

And I also imagine the speed of play can sometimes contribute to confusion and the occasional false start or other boneheaded infraction.


But it doesn’t matter. Penalties will always fall on the coaching staff and on a lack of team discipline, and they will always make winning games more difficult. Just look at Saturday’s game against Stanford. There were multiple penalties that essentially put points on the board for Stanford or kept them off for Cal, and that doesn’t even include the targeting play that saw Cal’s starting safety ejected for the game.

This is a step Cal has to take next season, because we’ve already seen how hard it is to win football games when you’re giving this many yards up to the officials. We’ve watched potential comebacks slip away after dumb penalties essentially hand the other team the win.

The infractions — whether aggressive or otherwise — have to be toned down next season if this team wants to be anything better than mediocre.

Riley McAtee covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee

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