Easily the biggest emphasis for NFL officials during the offseason was cracking down on illegal contact and illegal use of hands penalties. Through two weeks of the preseason, we've seen the consequences of this change in NFL policy, and the results have not been pretty.
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
Effect of points of emphasis...51 defensive holds, 24 illegal contact, 11 offensive PI, and 30 illegal hands to the face. Thats in 16 games!— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) August 10, 2014
The dramatic increase in penalty flags has created a barely watchable football game in which you have to restrain your excitement after each play to wait for the inevitable yellow rag to be thrown.
It's not clear why the NFL is emphasizing these two penalty calls -- it certainly isn't a matter of player safety, as I don't recall any players getting injured due to illegal contact. And there have not been a lot of complaints about how defenses have it too easy against the passing game (with the exception of the 49ers complaining about the Seahawks). This seems to be a reactionary change in policy to a dominant defense completely neutralizing a high-powered offense in the Super Bowl. And it is ruining the game.
The result of having more vigilant referees on these two calls isn't more accuracy, it is simply more calls. The game of football is just too fast to have fully precise refereeing. By being stricter with illegal contact penalties, you are forcing the refs to see something that may not be there. The tendency will be to throw flags at ALL contact, not just illegal contact, because in a split-second decision, it's not easy to tell whether the player was just fighting for the ball or if the contact truly impeded the receiver's ability to catch the ball. Just look at this play.
The defensive player does end up getting his hands on the receiver, but it's very close to within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and the contact is unavoidable. It's important to remember that the defensive player has just as much right to that space as the offensive player. The penalty erased a 105-yard interception return for Seattle. The Chargers scored a touchdown on the next play. That's a clear 14-point swing because of this policy.
The increase in these calls will have a huge impact on the game. Though illegal contact and illegal use of hands are both just 5-yard penalties (10 yards if illegal use of hands is called against the offense), both result in automatic first downs when called against the defense. Because third down is a very pass-heavy down, you are going to see several offensive drives extended due to illegal contact penalties, resulting in more (undeserved) points.
A lot of people think the NFL is just trying to send a message this preseason by calling an absurd amount of penalties. They think that panic over the rule changes is unwarranted and the league will ease up a bit when the regular season starts. However, NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino specifically said that won't be the case:
“We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular-season starts,’’ NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino told The MMQB.
Blandino added, however, that the league office believes teams will adjust to the stricter rules enforcement and that there won’t necessarily be more flags when the season starts because players will have learned through the preseason what they can and can’t do.
Putting the onus on the teams to change is the wrong way to go about this. In order for teams to avoid getting these calls, they will have to avoid all contact. The result will be a game that more closely resembles arena football, with receivers getting free reign and defenders having their hands tied and being completely unable to do anything about it.
With offenses continually breaking passing franchise records on a yearly basis, this policy change seems hastily thrown together and contrary to logic. The NFL would be wise to back down on their threats of continuing this trend. But if they are committed to changing the game so drastically, they need to seriously consider, at the very least, removing the automatic first down stipulation. Otherwise, we'll have a game unrecognizable to most NFL fans.