A penalty flag lies on the field during the game between the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. (USA TODAY Sports: Geoff Burke)
Preseason football is often watchable only for the most fervent fans. With starters only making cameo appearances half the time and games dominated by unknown players scrapping for roster spots, the product on the field is typically sloppy and the results not indicative of the true quality of the teams.
The first two weeks of the 2014 preseason has been particularly difficult to digest with a constant flurry of penalty flags littering fields across the league. According to Peter King of theMMQB.com, the average regular-season game in 2013 featured 12.2 penalties per game compared with 17.7 per game during the first week of preseason this year and 20.2 in Week 2.
The message from the league? The rules are not going to change, so the players better adjust.
“The way the game’s being officiated now is the way it’s going to be officiated when the season begins,” the NFL’s head of officiating, Dean Blandino, told King.
At the heart of the debate is the increased emphasis on defensive holding. According to Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com, there were 56 illegal contact penalties called during the first two weeks of the preseason. Only 54 were called during the ENTIRE 2013 regular season.
“We have to remain consistent. I knew we’d see a spike in calls when we put out these points of emphasis,” said Blandino, adding that downfield contact was “underofficiated” in 2013. “But coaches adjust, and players adjust. They have to, and they know it. And we’ll correct our officials when we feel they’re being over-zealous with certain calls.”
Ironically, one of those corrections came on a call against the Seattle Seahawks that negated a 105-yard interception return for a touchdown by Tharold Simon on Friday night. The league informed the Seahawks, whose “Legion of Boom” secondary is seen as one of the reasons for the increased emphasis on physical play downfield, that the call should not have been made.
The change in mindset will have to come from the top down, with coaching staffs spending time working with players on how to avoid penalties downfield.
“I think it is really an emphasis more than anything,” New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Typically, what’s being emphasized really shows up in the preseason. The officials are trying to make a point so you see a lot of contact. You see a lot of penalties with holding or pass interference.
“I think because that is one of the areas, it is not uncommon to see those flags. That being said, though, very quickly we have to get up to speed with how that affects us defensively. It becomes more challenging defensively than it would be offensively.”
Always the pragmatist, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick declined to take the bait from reporters this week when asked if he was frustrated by the number of flags being thrown.
“It’s one of things that we don’t really have any control over,” he said. “I’m just worried about trying to get our team better and coach our team. Let (Blandino) and whoever else handle the officials.”
Teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have several cornerbacks known for their ability to press at the line of scrimmage, will be forced to adapt.
“They know the rule — they’ve been playing corner for a long time,” Bucs linebacker Mason Foster said. “So they’ll get it done.”
The emphasis on downfield contact would appear to be the latest trend favoring offenses. At the same time, defense has continued to be the calling card come the Super Bowl, and the NFL is a copycat league before most anything else.
“I’d rather have the fewest penalties than the most penalties even though the last two years, as we know, both teams, Seattle and the Ravens, were the most penalized teams in the league and won the Super Bowl,” said New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. “I’ll sign up for that, but we want to be the least penalized team. That’s something we strive for. Again, it’s hard to attain. But we want to be physical too.”
And there’s the rub for teams trying to follow the blueprint of the Seahawks and Ravens. How to be physical while still playing within the confines of the rules. The Jets were flagged for six personal foul penalties alone in their second preseason game.
“It is to a point where the style of play, we were going to be aggressive and we challenged our guys to be aggressive,” Ryan said. “It was against a physical opponent and that’s how we played. But, obviously, we’ve got to make sure that we know the difference between being aggressive and doing some extra things.”
While coaches like Belichick, Payton and Ryan have generally taken the high road in regard to the number of penalties being called, there is a very real concern about what happens to the product on the field should the trend continue into the regular season.
“The bottom line is, they’re going to call them and it sounds like they are going to continue to call them and you just hope it doesn’t turn away the spectators from the game,” Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “They get bored watching the officials throw the ball more than the quarterback. That could be a problem.”