When the Seahawks’ dominant defense used a highly physical style of play to grapple and claw their way to a championship — pushing rules to their limit, but still staying (mostly) within them — it was easy to see a course correction coming.
But hey, NFL, maybe we can find some middle ground with this new emphasis on defensive holding and pass interference? Because it would be nice to have games completed this season in under six hours. We all love our football, but there are other life things to do on Sundays during the fall and winter (like eat, and sleep).
Officials have been told to hone their eye on three specific areas: offensive pass interference, defensive holding, and illegal downfield contact (defensive backs engaged beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage). The goal, ideally, is to eliminate a blatant disregard for the rules, something the Seahawks did artfully last year while allowing a league low 172.0 passing yards per game, and only 5.8 yards per pass attempt.
But the outcome so far with nearly two full weeks of the preseason completed has been much more than a course correction. No, it’s been a halting, skidding U-turn.
Fields have been littered with yellow laundry, and the increase in penalties has been downright mountainous. Through 62 preseason games officials have thrown an average of 23.7 flags during each exhibition tune-up. Last year, they called 12.7 penalties per game.
That means the amount of penalties called throughout an entire game in 2013 is nearly equal to the penalties called on one team in a game so far this August. Last year wasn’t a particularly soft year for penalties either. Over the past five seasons, the per game average has fluctuated between 12.4 and 13.2. Taking that to even further, scary heights, the Saints lead the league so far this preseason with 42 penalties for 293 yards.
If those numbers aren’t already making you believe we’ll see the league’s first 7,000-yard passer this year, let’s go beyond them to what the penalties look like. The most controversial call of the weekend came on Seahawks (surprise!) cornerback Tharold Simon, who snatched what he thought was an interception in his own end-zone, and then returned it 103 yards for a touchdown.
Stop touching receivers at all! http://t.co/g5buLYqfLK
— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) August 16, 2014
Simon was flagged for making contact beyond five yards. Which was troubling to say the least because a) the contact seemed incidental, or at least mutual and not initiated by either party and b) a butterfly has more force than Simon’s arm on this play.
The league has since said “umm, oops” to Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, telling him the officials made an error and shouldn’t have thrown that flag. It’s preseason for them too, but that apology means little in hindsight, and it’ll mean even less just over two weeks from now when games matter.
Even considering a flag throw on the Simon play and many others shows how far the league is taking its policing of downfield contact. While in theory that goes both ways, limiting physicality will always favor the receivers. And by extension quarterbacks, offenses, and the league’s already ballooning passing numbers. Peyton Manning shattered pretty much every known passing record in 2013 while throwing for 5,477 yards, the sixth time a quarterback has topped the 5,000-yard mark over the past three seasons.
It would have been nice to shrug the early flag flurry off as a preseason experiment, hoping that while calls will rise, the officials are using the nothingness of August to make their own adjustments. Here’s head of officiating Dean Blandino to kill that hope:
“We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts.”
When interceptions are eventually outlawed, remember it started here.