It is all but impossible to discuss the NFL’s high penalty totals this season without focusing on the absurdity of Brandon Browner‘s role in it. Browner committed three more penalties Sunday, bringing his season total to 21 and expanding his already-commanding lead in our recurring Penalty All-Star salute.
As the chart shows, the New Orleans Saints cornerback has committed 40 percent more penalties — accepted, declined or offsetting — than the next-highest player. His total includes 10 for defensive holding and three apiece for pass interference and face mask, costing the Saints 198 penalty yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no player has committed more penalties over an entire season since at least 2001.
The NFL as a whole is averaging 14.19 accepted penalties per game, its highest average through 13 weeks in 10 seasons and its fourth-highest since 1970. But even within the context of that uptick, Browner’s surge is incredible. No one else in the league this season has cost his team more than 119 penalty yards.
Unsurprisingly given the defensive holding calls, Browner grabs opposing receivers so often that officials seem ready for it.
I reached out to retired official and officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos, who now serves as an analyst for ESPN and other outlets, to understand how officials approach a game that involves a heavily penalized player. Defensive holding is among the penalties that typically vary widely in frequency between crews — the crew with the highest total (Clete Blakeman’s) has called nearly three times as many as the crew with the lowest total (Tony Corrente’s) — but everyone seems in agreement in Browner’s case.
“In all my years in the league,” Daopoulos said, “I never knew of anyone going into a game with a preconceived notion about a player. Your job is to keep it an even playing field. But there are always players, who if they keep getting beat, are going to try to find ways to press the envelope a bit. It happens at all positions. You’re going to see what the officials will let you get away with.
“[Browner’s] situation is that he doesn’t get it. He’s getting called so many times, and they’re legitimate calls. He doesn’t seem to understand the line and that someone is always watching him, especially defensive backs. There is an official assigned to each route. The best players know when to back off. They know where that line is and they don’t cross the line.”
To be fair, Browner either has never known when to back off or has simply refused. Browner has committed more penalties since he played his first game in 2011 than any other player — and it’s not even close. He has committed 69 penalties for 597 yards lost in 57 games, 24 penalties more than Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Doug Free (45) and for 132 yards more than New York Jets cornerback Buster Skrine (465).
Browner has played in only 57 games over that period, making his mastery of this category even more stark. His average of 1.21 penalties per game is nearly twice that of Free (0.65 per game) and his 10.47-yard average per game is 41 percent higher than Skrine’s (6.12 yards per game).
It’s fair to ask why Browner continues to find work in the NFL given the limited tolerance most coaches have for repetitive penalties. The answer is simple. What makes him an easy target for officials also helps in redirecting receivers and denying them the ball on other occasions. Browner is a rare 6-foot-4, 221-pound cornerback who has the physical capacity to defend against the pass in a way others do not.
And for as much credit as New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler gets for his game-clinching interception in Super Bowl XLIX, it should always be remembered that it was Browner who busted up the play to begin with by stuffing Seattle Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse on the line of scrimmage.
We’ll continue tracking the Penalty All-Stars through the end of the season, but it’s already safe to assume we have our MVP.