The 49ers are No. 1 … when it comes to following the NFL rules.
They have a league-low 31 penalties and are on pace to finish with 71 this season, which would be the fewest for the team in a 16-game season.
This is a rare example of good news in an otherwise dismal year, right? On offense, for example, they have only five accepted holding penalties – fewest in the league – and they are on track for just 11 this season. Last year they had 25, their most frequent infraction.
Remember the delay-of-game whistles during the Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh eras that drove fans bonkers? The 49ers haven’t committed one in Chip Kelly’s offense that snaps the ball with plenty of time on the clock.
“It’s really what we talk about – the no-brainer penalties – that we really try to harp on because you don’t want those things to hurt you and you need every inch, every yard you can get in this league,” Kelly said Thursday. “And I think it’s a real important factor, and we talk about it.”
Ask around the league, however, and you’ll get a mixed reaction as far as what being the least-penalized team in the NFL means.
Through Week 8 this year, the two most penalized squads, Oakland and Washington, have winning records. The team that drew the most flags in 2013 and 2014, the Seattle Seahawks, made the Super Bowl in both seasons.
During the 2013 regular season, which ended with the Seahawks trouncing the Broncos in the Super Bowl, the specific fouls for which they finished in the top five included unnecessary roughness, defensive pass interference, defensive holding and face mask.
“The style of play that generates this kind of focus from the officials is somewhat emblematic of us,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said when asked about his team’s high penalty count last year. “I don’t want our guys to back off.” Later, he said: “We are pretty crazy and wild, the way we play, and we don’t want to change that.”
The best 49ers teams of the past decade also have drawn the most whistles. They committed more than 100 infractions from 2011 to 2013, the years they went to the playoffs, and had 109 in 2012 when they went to the Super Bowl. The most penalized team that year, the Rams, finished 7-8-1. The second-most flagged team, the Ravens, won the Super Bowl.
Which is to say, in a sport that rewards aggression, physical play and taking risks, the teams that end up with a lot of penalties sometimes finish with a lot of wins, too.
This year’s 49ers squad was billed as aggressive, one that would furiously push the pace on offense and the blitz, jump pass routes and play in-your-face, press coverage on defense. But they’ve backed off. Kelly still is running plays at a faster clip than any other club, but it’s slower than he ran them in Philadelphia and certainly lags behind his breathless pace when he coached at Oregon.
The defense, meanwhile, has had to simplify itself after giving up big plays early in the season, especially in a Week 2 loss at Carolina and a Week 3 blowout defeat in Seattle.
Are the 49ers too careful and allowing their opponents – who have a combined 51 penalties against San Francisco – to be the aggressors?
Kelly said the emphasis this year has been on avoiding stupid, pre-snap fouls and not making his players hesitant. The 49ers agree.
“We can be aggressive and still be a smart and focused team,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “I think some penalties – some you can’t really get away from – but a lot the ones that come when you’re tired – jumping offsides, not really being focused – you can eliminate.”