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Throwing the Penalty Flag on Jeff Fisher

It happens every training camp: the media gathers around Rams coach Jeff Fisher, asks about his team’s high penalty count from the previous season, then waits for an answer that’s as predictable as a Rams’ false start.

Penalties are a point of emphasis this summer.

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Fisher’s Rams have been penalized more than any other NFL team.

The coaches are working on it, driving the point home to the players. Clean it up.

No more idiotic penalties. It’s costing us first downs, points, field position, and third-down stops by our defense.

We won’t have this. It’s time to change.

“Our focus has been on reducing the penalties and so we want to execute,” Fisher said earlier in camp. “We want to avoid penalties. We want to avoid the line of scrimmage things and the things that have victimized us in years past. Hopefully, our emphasis here on the practice field will carry over.”

It sounds good, except for a couple of things.

One, the Rams never really reduce their penalty totals in a significant way.

Second, Fisher frequently complains about the incorrect calls, the bad calls, that unfairly hurt his team.

In Saturday’s preseason-game loss to Indianapolis, the Rams were penalized seven times for 60 yards in the first half and lost a chance to establish efficiency and momentum by having big plays nullified. They were hit with 10 infractions (and 83 penalty yards) overall.  Through three exhibition games the Rams have been racked up 229 yards in accepted penalties _ or 114 yards more than opponents.

As he often does, Fisher sounded off on the officiating, saying he disagreed with “70 percent” of the calls made against the Rams. He later dropped that estimate to 40 or 50 percent.

Obviously, all teams get flagged unfairly at times. NFL officials do a very good job but make some mistakes. It’s the human element. But the undisciplined Rams certainly make more mistakes than the officials, and Fisher’s teams have a history of getting flagged for an excessive number of penalties.

Because of this clear pattern, it’s difficult for me to have empathy for Fisher. When you see a Fisher-coached team listed among the worst offenders every season in the penalty count, the lack of discipline is an ongoing problem. The penalty epidemic isn’t on the refs; it’s on Fisher. So we have to throw a flag on him.

Here are some numbers:

Over Fisher’s 16 full seasons as head coach of Houston/Tennessee, his teams had the fifth-highest penalty count in the NFL, were second for most penalty yards, and third for the most first downs given to an opponent via penalty. Opponents had 160 fewer penalties and 1,429 fewer penalty yards than the Oilers-Titans _ and picked up 91 more first downs than Fisher’s squad via accepted penalties.

Over Fisher’s first three seasons as Rams’ head coach, the Rams have been penalized more than any other NFL team, and have piled up the most penalty yards.  As for giving opponents first downs on penalties, the Rams were the second-worst in this category between 2012-2014. Opponents had 76 fewer penalties, 508 fewer penalty yards, and received 25 more first downs than the Rams because or penalties.

Combing the Houston/Tennessee seasons with the St. Louis years, here’s what you get:

Fisher’s teams were slapped with 236 more penalties than their opponents.

Fisher’s teams were flagged for 1,937 more penalty yards than opponents.

Fisher’s teams received 116 fewer first downs via penalties than opponents.

Focusing on the STL seasons, this is a big deal. The Rams play a lot of close games, and are 20-27-21 under Fisher. Over the three seasons the Rams have been outscored by 95 total points, an average of just under 2 points per game.

These self-inflicted penalties have repercussions.

A team like the Rams that generally plays tight, low-scoring games can’t afford to have potential scoring drives killed by penalties, and they can’t allow opponents to keep offensive possessions going by handing them free first downs via penalty.

The Rams’ penalty deficit really can make a difference between winning or losing. And in the Rams’ frustrating quest to finish with a winning record and make the playoffs, they’ll only continue to undermine themselves with a blizzard of flags.

Some teams, the good teams, have the offensive firepower and the nasty defense that can overcome penalties. Others, like the Rams, don’t have a high-scoring offense and the margin for error is precariously thin. And penalty totals are often the dividing line between success or failure on game day.  The difference is slight.

Over the past three seasons, when NFL teams commit eight or more accepted penalties in a game, they have a .448 winning percentage. But with as little than one fewer penalty per game — seven or less — NFL teams have a win percentage of .523 over the past three seasons.

The Rams fit that profile.

Under Fisher they’re 12-9 when getting pinned with seven or fewer penalties in a game. But when the Fisher-led Rams commit eight or more accepted penalties, their record over the past three seasons is 8-18-1.

Yes, penalties matter. But instead of just simply talking about it, Coach Fisher needs to  do  something about it.

Given the obvious impact that penalties have on a team’s record, I don’t know why Fisher can’t see the value of having a more disciplined, less self-destructive team. It isn’t too late for him to change. But if he keeps stalling, we’ll have to hit him with a 5-yard penalty for delay of game.

Thanks for reading…

-Bernie 

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