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How NFL Illegal Contact & Roughing The Passer Changes Could Impact Betting

How NFL Illegal Contact & Roughing The Passer Changes Could Impact Betting article feature image

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images. Pictured: Derwin James & Drew Lock

"This was called illegal contact and extended that drive."

"They called this illegal contact?!?!"

"This is okay, though, and I no longer have any idea what illegal contact means."

Penalties, fouls, balls and strikes, offsides. Human error happens, but understanding the rules and how they impact the game is vital in betting.

Each offseason, the NFL Competition Committee receives input from coaches, general managers, owners, current players and NFL legends, the NFL Players Association and many others before recommending changes to any rule.

Last year, they discussed such issues as "use of helmet," taunting and other issues.

This year, one of the topics has been penalties, specifically illegal contact and roughing the passer.

The Impact of Illegal Contact

Let's start with illegal contact. Illegal contact refers to prohibited contact by a defender while the quarterback still has the ball in the pocket. The infraction results in a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

Utilizing our Action Predictive Analytics NFL play-by-play data, 37 illegal contact penalties were called in the NFL last season, which was 42 penalties fewer than were called the season before in 2020 (a total of 79).

With that data in mind, the NFL has asked its officials to include illegal contact among its "points of emphasis" for this season.

The question is: what could that mean for our wallets?

According to Kevin Seifert of ESPN, "officials flagged illegal contact an average of 97 times per season between 2002 and 2020." That means, in 2021, we saw an astronomical 53% decrease in the penalty being called.

Going back over the last three seasons of play-by-play data, there have been over 17,000 total offensive drives by all 32 teams — almost 4,000 of those drives translated into touchdowns or 23.3% of drives.

In that span, there have been about 600 drives that had either an illegal contact or roughing the passer called — 276 of those resulted in a touchdown, or 45.5% of drives.

Of those 600 drives, over 73% of them resulted in either a touchdown or a field goal attempt. To say it simply, illegal contact leads to scoring opportunities — at a minimum.

As Seifert notes, in 2014 the NFL also brought up the issue of illegal contact after just 52 calls in 2013. Those calls then rose to 148 in 2014.

Interestingly enough, from a betting market point of view, the over returned a +3.9% ROI in 2013 with very few illegal contact calls.

In 2014, the over went 50-41 (54.9%), going over the total by 0.83 points per game in the first six weeks before falling off a cliff. The under finished the season in Weeks 7-17 going 93-69-2 (57.4%) — under the total by 1.8 points per game.

On average over the last three years, illegal contact tends to be called more on early downs (71% on 1st and 2nd down) and in the second and fourth quarter/overtime (57%), which contributes to more scoring and higher totals in those quarters.

From a personnel point of view, the most interesting thing to bettors would be the most penalized teams, which would be the Cardinals (8), Titans (7) and Dolphins (7).

The Impact of Roughing The Passer

Let's hit on roughing the passer.

In the simplest terms, "any physical acts against a player who is in a passing posture (i.e. before, during, or after a pass) which, in the Referee’s judgment, are unwarranted by the circumstances of the play will be called as fouls."

The infraction results in a 15-yard penalty, an automatic first down and disqualification if flagrant.

According to Seifert, "the competition committee has clarified that contact to the helmet and below the knee area must be forcible, in recognition that some officials have thrown flags for minor contact in recent seasons."

When it comes to roughing the passer calls, there were 158 called last year, a 22% increase from the previous season. The "point of emphasis" comes down from the league after seeing just one roughing the passer penalty called in the Hall of Fame Game, though it was the first play of the game.

On the very first play from scrimmage of the preseason this was flagged for roughing the passer 🤷‍♂️

— Field Yates (@FieldYates) August 5, 2022

When it comes to roughing the passer penalties over the last three seasons, you see similar trends to illegal contact, with the second and fourth quarters harboring the majority of the calls (65%).

It's also worth noting, we are coming off a 2021 NFL season that saw the under profit bettors at a +3.3% return on investment, the highest its been since 2017 and the third-best year since 2005.

In the end, if we see fewer roughing the passer penalties, my feeling is you will see less teams losing get bailed out.

  • Exhibit A: In the last 3 years, when an offense gets a roughing the passer called in their favor on 2nd down or later with 10+ yards to go for a first down, that offense scored a TD or FG 69% of the time.
  • Exhibit B: Over that same span, teams committing either an illegal contact penalty or a roughing the passer penalty were on average losing by 3.1 points at the time of the call.
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