Flag On The Play: The Impact of Penalties on Winning & Losing In The CFL

They come out of the officials’ pockets, fly out of their hands landing unceremoniously on the turf. Their appearance almost universally brings a collective sigh of disappointment from all involved in the game. Not only are they an irritant to us fans in the stands and at home watching on television, but they are also a source of considerable frustration amongst coaches and front office personnel.

As we continue to attribute various aspects of the game to results in the wins and losses column, today we will take a look at those little orange flags and how much penalties are correlated to winning and losing in the Canadian Football League.

When I first decided on this path to slice and dice the various stats and aspects of the game, there were a few things I had confidence would reveal themselves. Earlier we looked at one of them – Turnovers. As I had expected and as we concluded, turnovers in general are significantly correlated to winning and losing.

I had the same expectations when it comes to penalties. Far too often we hear coaches in post-game scrums speak to the impact of penalties. While some, if not many of my expectations were proven true, I will say I was surprised at some, if not many of the results.


Let us first start with penalties overall. As we can see illustrated above, penalties during the last 5 CFL regular seasons are spread quite evenly across the three phases of the game. Approximately one-third of the total nylon tossed was equally targeted towards the offense, defense and special teams.

When we dig a little deeper and take a look at the various types of penalties, things get a little more interesting and quite telling.


The sheer amount of Illegal Procedure, Illegal Participation and Offside penalties is quite staggering. When you add Time Count and Delay of Game violations, roughly one-third of all penalties occur prior to the actual snap of the ball. These types of infractions are the real cause of consternation and frustration for both coaches and fans alike. Coaches cannot condone mental mistakes and they often are the difference between a player receiving a pay-cheque or getting an apple and a roadmap and ticket out-of-town.

The other thing that stood out to me when compiling these numbers were the relative amounts of No Yards and Special Team Holding/Illegal Block penalties to Pass Interference and Illegal Contact penalties. I know from my personal experience, it seems like a flag is thrown each and every punt so the fact that 20% of all penalties are on these plays did not come as a surprise. Yet, I will also admit that I thought Pass Interference and Illegal Contact penalties would have been much higher than only 10% of the calls. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the changes to Pass Interference interpretations that will be ushered in this coming season.

With this information, you can begin to draw some basic conclusions to how connected penalties are to winning or losing. Yet, how connected? Are penalties correlated to winning and losing in the CFL? And if so, how strong are their correlations and are all penalties the same?


I first looked at the most recent 2014 CFL regular season. Once again, most of the results “fit” my eye and were as expected. Penalties overall had a negative correlation to winning, or put more aptly, have a positive correlation to losing of .328. While this result can only be classified as moderately correlated, it at least corresponds with what we think about penalties and overall success in winning percentages.

Offensive penalties had a negative correlation to winning of .599. This is fairly understandable since if you take penalties when you have the ball, they can only hurt and hamper your chances of scoring. Objectionable Conduct penalties had the highest negative correlation to winning at .825, which again made sense since these kinds of undisciplined penalties are the hallmark of poorer losing teams.

Not that I expected each and every type of penalty to be negatively correlated to winning, but I did expect that if they were not, they would be classified as uncorrelated and minimal at best. Yet, once again there were a few results that did come as a surprise.

Kickers beware! Roughing The Kicker calls were positively correlated to winning at the degree of .506. It appears when it comes to winning and losing; going hard after punters and kickers is in your best interest!

Also, as a die-hard and loyal Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan, the fact that Holding and Illegal Block calls during punt and kick returns really surprised me and honestly burns my backside!

I then decided to take a longer and more detailed look at penalties and their correlation to winning and losing. Primarily because the more data you have the better, as well as to make sure that 2014 was not an anomaly and result of small sample size.


As you can see the results for the last five CFL regular seasons as illustrated above begin to look more like we would expect. First of all, two-thirds of the types of penalties analyzed are negatively correlated to winning which is what one would anticipate. Furthermore, the ones that are not negatively correlated to winning, their measurements all fall within the range of uncorrelated or not really having any significant attribution.

The most highly negative correlated statistics to winning happens to in the punting game and more specifically when it comes to covering punts. This did not necessarily come as a surprise since, once again, these can be classified as undisciplined penalties and are trademarks of poor, losing and undisciplined teams.

Almost thankfully, the 2014 observance of Kicker penalties and their apparent incongruence with winning does not hold true when you analyze a longer period of data. As we would have expected, Unnecessary Roughness and Roughing the Kicker penalties are strongly negatively correlated to winning in the CFL.

Yet, some surprises once again stand out. Over the last five years, Offensive Holding and Illegal Blocks have a positive correlation to winning of .226. Although this result is minimal and uncorrelated, it is interesting since it appears to contradict what we would assume in that holding penalties are detrimental to offensive drives and momentum.

The fact that Pass Interference penalties have no correlation to losing also came as a revelation and again may have been one of the reasons for changes to pass interference interpretations that we will be witness to this 2015 CFL season.

Allow me to offer a potential explanation as to these two incongruences. The fact that both types of these penalties often occur in preventing what would be a bigger play against – a quarterback sack and a big reception – could classify them as a “good” penalty to be taken. They are almost “preventative” in nature.

It is also worth noting that the team often described as having the best offensive line in the league has accumulated the most holding penalties. Saskatchewan led the league in the last five years with 101 offensive holding infractions. Meanwhile the team with the fewest holding calls was Winnipeg with only 60. Lesson: perhaps the big boys in Bomber Blue did not need to be replaced but rather instructed to clutch and grab a little more often!

The same can be said about defensive secondary units and pass interference penalties. Montreal, who have had multiple all-star selections over the years and are often referred to as the league’s best, have led the league in PI calls during the last five years with a total of 80. Lesson: Perhaps we should call the new pass interference interpretations as the Alouette rule!

So in the end, most of the data and results confirmed what we would have expected. Penalties are negatively correlated to winning in the CFL. All other things being equal, the more disciplined your team is – the higher probability that they will be victorious.


Next up will be BIG PLAYS as we continue to slice and dice and peel away at the layers of statistics and analytics as we take you Inside The Numbers.

Mark Fulton
About Mark Fulton (53 Articles)
Mark is a 25 year veteran of the investment industry and lifelong fan of football. He is a firm believer that most everything can be explained by a good graph.
Contact: Twitter

6 Comments on Flag On The Play: The Impact of Penalties on Winning & Losing In The CFL

  1. Riley the atheist dog // May 22, 2015 at 11:01 am //

    I’m enjoying your articles, Mark. I suspect you are on the money with your analysis that offensive holding and pass interference correlate positively with winning because they bring a net benefit to the penalized team by preventing the worse outcome of a bigger play. I think there might be another element as well, and that is the overall effectiveness of the penalized player. This is for two unrelated reasons.

    First, the boundary between legal and illegal actions to impede the progress of an opponent is blurry. Players who regularly push as close to the edge of legal as they can push are more likely to step over that blurry line than players who are more restrained. But because the line is blurry, not onlly are these players more likely to be penalized in the first place, but these same players are also more likely to benefit from an arguably illegal play without a penalty call. So they not only prevent the potential big play on such occasions, but they do so for free.

    The other factor is the raw skill of the penalized player. Both holds and PI penalties obviously require the penalized player to be close enough to the victim to take the penalty. A DB won’t get called for PI on a WR who has left him five yards behind choking on his dust! Either will an OL who can’t even reach the defender on his way to a sack, or a SB who completely misses his block as his RB gets tackled for a loss. So to some extent, I suspect these kinds of penalties will be called more frequently against more effective players simply because they are the players who are usually in the position to take such penalties in the first place.

    Again, I am enjoying your articles. Keep ’em coming!

    • Mark Fulton Mark Fulton // May 22, 2015 at 12:24 pm //

      Thank-you Riley! Fantastic insight & I agree whole heartedly with you assessments! I never thought of it that way but you are completely spot on!

  2. steve desio // May 23, 2015 at 2:02 pm //

    I would say that a lot of the flag throwing in recent years started with the allowed philosophy of tackling. Out were the long fundemental head up, hit in the mid section, wrap up and drive the ball carrier to the ground.
    Replaced by defenders flying around leading with their helmet or shoulder to create a huge highlight real collision. with the now known affects of concusions, as well as missed Tackles, a generation is now beginning to grow up back to solid form tackling.

    The 5 yard now yards penalty was a growing issue with the change in rules to help correct that. A Basic advantage for a punt coverage team being inside the 5 yard halo. At worst coverage teams get a 5 yard penalty but have a much better advantage to keep a returner from breaking a big one. If the returner does break a big one, or even a average one, the 5 yard no yards penality is declined for a better spot of the Ball.
    Tacking that no yards penalty to the end of the play and teams may see things a bit different now.

    As for the PI and O holding penalties they will always be their on some level. Better to hold and not have your Qb hammered. For DBs better to interfere then give up a potential TD on that play.

    The now clearer 5 yard chuck penalty allowed by DBs on receivers will clean those PIs up pretty quickly during the course of the season.
    With a large majority of cover DBs being imports and playing in NCAA and NFL this is the rule that they have been abiding by for years. Even with more National DBs beginning to emerge as cover guys many attended NCAA so again nothing new for them.
    Plenty of savy veterans have been able to extend their careers with the under the much unclear old rule.
    IMHO there a so many more better and expereince DBs young or hitting their prime available to the CFL. In this NFL era teams are dismissing guys based soley on their Height. Those who do break through most spend at most their minimal 3 years on 53 man and PRs or a combo of both. A smaller DB will really need to shine to break through that point.
    With the bigger Canadian fields speed and technique, as well as experience, can offset or even be an advantage over taller receivers.
    We see it every year with a true rookie out of NCAA developing quickly or an obscure DB name with at least some NFL experience thrive right away. Even seeing more and more Arena Football League DBs who were passed over by NFL at some point along with the limited number of roster spots in the 9 team CFL. Catch the eye of a scout or GM and adapt very quickly to the HB spot with AFL having one receiver waggling. Some top guys will sign a CFL contract ASAP. While a slew of others head to mini camps and then even a second shot at the short “rookie Mini Camps that preceed right before official camp starts.
    The AFL develop rule that allows players to go to these camps and placed on other league exempt list. For players who dont make the cut are right back with the team for the next AFL game.

  3. The correlation for the Offensive holding or Illegal Block penalties may also contribute to the continued health of the QB over the course of the season. See McMannus, Danny – 1999.

  4. David Story // May 25, 2015 at 1:05 pm //

    This is a wonderful new website for CFL fans

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