Anyone who has watched a snap of preseason NFL football realizes this can't continue.
Don't worry—it probably won't.
Yellow flags have been flying at an insane rate over the first two weeks of the NFL preseason thanks to a new emphasis on illegal contact in defensive secondaries. If one believes the outrage on Twitter, anytime a defensive back even breathes on a wide receiver, the entire game shuts down for an hour while the referee sets up a guillotine for the vile offender.
This new emphasis was originally communicated to teams via a 12-minute video shown at training camps, as reported by The Washington Post's Mark Maske, who quoted this passage, among others:
Defenders cannot initiate contact with eligible receivers more than five yards from the line of scrimmage when the quarterback is in the pocket with the ball. The covering official will recognize the contact and then look back to the quarterback. If he is in the pocket with the ball or in the process of releasing it, it will be a foul for illegal contact.
The flurry of flags has sent fans and media alike into a tizzy because no one wants to see the game over-officiated. "Let them play" is a pretty consistent refrain anytime a referee throws a flag—let alone at this frequency.
What kind of numbers are we talking about, you ask? Sports on Earth's Michael Tanier has the answer:
The avg team committed 8.5 defensive holds/ illegal contact fouls last season. At the current rate, they will average 37.5 fouls in '14— Michael Tanier (@MikeTanier) August 17, 2014
That's a massive jump in the amount of flags, and regardless of the actual impact on the game, it will be a major public-relations headache for the NFL to deal with. The NFL is the golden goose that no one wants to see slaughtered. Any change is bad change, the critics will say.
Hypothetically speaking, the biggest argument is that this will result in an artificial spike in stats and length of games. However, the latter gripe might actually be much ado about nothing, as CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz points out:
Man, thru 17 preseason games, there's been 47 more def. holding penalties than last yr. Games on avg have taken only 1 min, 10 sec longer.— Josh Katzowitz (@joshkatzowitz) August 15, 2014
As for the passing stats, Maske, in another column at The Washington Post, linked this hubbub to a similar crackdown on defenders and subsequent stats inflation from 2004 to 2007:
The NFL last made illegal contact a point of emphasis for officials in each season between 2004 and 2007. The 2004 crackdown helped to usher in the most passing-friendly era that the sport has ever seen. So will passing numbers increase significantly again this season? Is that even possible, after the dizzying heights they already have reached? Some players say there’s no way of knowing yet.
Moreover, we also have the constant din from many who worry about any instance in which the NFL makes the rule book more friendly (even just in terms of officiating emphasis) toward offenses.
This is the same group of fans—and some in media—that worries about putting skirts on quarterbacks and claims the big hits have been taken out of the game forever because the league has been sued into worrying about player safety for a change.
These voices are concerned that certain players are being coddled at the expense of the game they know and love.
While I hardly entertain those noises when it comes to player safety, it's worth perking up when an NFL official says things like the following quote from John Parry to Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe: "It’s an offensive game, and we want receivers to be able to run a free route."
No, football is not an "offensive game." This isn't a game of Madden where you can just set your controller down when the other team has the football, nor is it a Thursday afternoon walkthrough at your local high school field. Last I checked, there were 22 players on the field at a time, and football was not only an offensive game but also a defensive one.
That an NFL official just alienated half the players on the field is pretty troubling.
This is hardly the first time the NFL has had to worry about optics or ramifications after making decisions in a more knee-jerk fashion. The NFLPA has complained for some time that the NFL's decision-making process is far too subjective and doesn't usually include stats.
For instance: A few years ago, the heat was just beginning to really turn up regarding the NFL's role (or lack thereof) in protecting players from concussions. I was sitting in an NFLPA boardroom with numerous medical advisors when the NFL teased that it was looking into mandating soft padding. The doctors in the room (along with everyone else) laughed.
The doctors explained that the NFL didn't seem to understand its own game and the physics behind injuries, while the union heads claimed this was just another example of the NFL making decisions without the evidence.
Here and now, the NFL has nothing to point to in terms of why this change had to be made. Are there player safety reasons? Has the frequency of the illegal-contact flag dropped precipitously since the last time they emphasized it? If so, by how much? What kind of enforcement is the NFL actually looking for?
Last time the NFL had this as a major emphasis was 2004 and the number of illegal contact fouls went from 79 to 191.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) July 19, 2014
The NFL, on its part, is simply doubling down on the rhetoric instead of providing answers.
When asked for comment on the veritable fountain of flags this preseason, NFL spokesmen Greg Aiello and Randall Liu directed me to the following statements NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino issued to Peter King of MMQB.com:
We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts...
The way the game’s being officiated now is the way it’s going to be officiated when the season begins. We have to remain consistent. I knew we’d see a spike in calls when we put out these points of emphasis. 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.
Plus, I would say that between 70 and 75 percent of the calls I’ve gotten from teams after their games this preseason are asking the question, "Why weren’t there more calls?" I had a call today from a team with seven questions, and six were, "Why wasn’t a foul called on this play?"...
I believe that once you see the players adjust, you won’t see this exorbitant number of calls. Downfield contact was underofficiated last year.
If one is looking for a silver lining here, that line in the sand by Blandino apparently wasn't communicated to Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who told Gregg Bell of Tacoma, Washington's The News Tribune that the NFL is willing to have a conversation about the relentless flags.
I asked the league office to reconcile what Blandino said and what Carroll appears to have been told, but at publication time, those same spokesmen had yet to comment.
The truth will likely be found somewhere between Blandino and Carroll. It's important to note that it's preseason not only for the players but for the referees as well.
As the season draws near and the players realize the league means business, there will likely be fewer flags than we've seen in the preseason (albeit still more than we saw last year). In much the same way, as the league and its officials realize that players have gotten the hint, there should be some modicum of relief, as the league is clearly allowing that there has been since the emphasis of 2004-2007.
Realize, though, that the world will not stop spinning either way.
Did the NFL become unwatchable between 2004 and 2007? No, not even in the slightest.
In 2004, we saw the Patriots become Super Bowl champs, but it wasn't the Randy Moss-era, offensive-wunderkind Patriots; it was the team with a gritty, gutsy defense led by Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison.
That same year may have seen the Indianapolis Colts score a then-record 51 passing touchdowns, but it also saw Ed Reed set a record with 358 total interception yards.
Ebb and flow.
Whereas 2004 was a year marked by the Colts' offensive explosion, 2005 saw the Pittsburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl with a crushing defense. They met the Seahawks in the Super Bowl—a team led by its running game and MVP Shaun Alexander.
To everything, turn...turn...turn.
Why get up in arms about something that's happened before when literally nothing bad happened the last time?
Will you stop watching the NFL if illegal contact flags continue?
The NFL is not in the business of losing money and tends to move at a more glacial pace when it comes to extensive change anyway. This emphasis, therefore, will be quickly swept under the rug if it suggests even a slight potential decline in revenue.
The sky isn't falling and no trumpets are heralding any end of days. The NFL is still the game you love today, and it will still be the game you love tomorrow—flags and skirts included.
Whether or not the change was needed or foolish, the echo chamber of NFL coverage has turned this into a talking point. Once a new topic comes around, none of us will even notice illegal contact again until it gets called on our team (outrage!) or the opponent (fair!).
Then, we can all meet back here when the league decides to make it a point of emphasis once again a decade from now.