# When are (American) football teams likely to decline penalties?

In the first quarter of the Super Bowl, the Seahawks threw an incomplete pass on first down, leading to second down.

Except that the offense had a "false start," for a five yard penalty. The Broncos accepted it, and it was first and 15 instead of second and 10.

Why would the Broncos prefer the extra five yards instead of declining the penalty for a loss of a down? My understanding is that fewer opportunities for "conversion" often outweighs the distance.

Unless the penalty decision was governed by field position? The Seahawks started from the Broncos 30, and were pulled back to the 35, toward the edge of field goal range.

• I think your last sentence is just about it. You like your chances as a defense in 2 & 10, or 1 & 15, so the fact that a field goal could be made more difficult by the penalty surely was their reason for accepting. – Nick Feb 4 '14 at 19:49
• A false start penalty stops the play before it begins, so technically the incomplete pass did not happen and declining the penalty would merely have brought up 1st and 10 again. However, this is still an interesting question in general. – Michael Myers Apr 21 '14 at 15:53

Did a little research... we can actually put some pretty reasonable data to this. Take a look at http://www.advancednflstats.com/2009/12/expected-point-values.html to see what expected points are. Then I opened the table he links there (http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AhEXxf9odCnMdHJJd3lkUDVsX25BbUdsY2FmOUM1T3c&hl=en).

Looks like 2nd and 10 from the O30 is 2.73 expected points... 1st and 15 from the O25 is 2.66 expected points. Looks like the result is the same from most positions on the field (0.05 points worse if you put them to 1st and 15 after a touchback, or 0.06 points worse if you chose 2nd and goal from the 10 over 1st and goal from the 15).

So looks like generally you take the 5 yards if you're the defense in such a situation, but that there isn't a giant difference between the options.

The simple answer is that a football team will decline a penalty anytime they think that the loss of down with the result of the play is better for them than rerunning the down and taking the penalty yards. This is really a judgement call.

In the case of deciding between "1st and 15" or "2nd and 10," the defense will usually prefer to be in a "2nd and 10" situation. However, there are some situations when "1st and 15" might be better for the defense.

As you mentioned, if the offense is on the edge of field goal range, a 5 yard penalty might be enough to push them out of range. However, this is usually more of a 4th quarter move in a close game, when you need to make sure that the offense doesn't get a needed field goal, and you'll take the risk of allowing the offense an extra down. In the first quarter, the defense is more focused on minimizing touchdowns, and would give them 5 yards if it makes it harder for the offense to reach 1st down.

Another situation where "1st and 15" might be better than "2nd and 10" would be on the other end of the field. If the penalty would push the offense back against their own goal line, the defense might take it to get the possibility of a safety.

• I would add "3rd and X" situations. Decline the penalty if the offense does not pick up the first down...accept the penalty if they do. – user527 Feb 5 '14 at 2:41
• @edmastermind29 Agreed. My answer focuses on penalties during first down. – Ben Miller - Remember Monica Feb 5 '14 at 14:43