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View from Above: Waving the white flag on the yellow flags
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I'm waiting for the first football referee to be placed on Injured Reserve - for throwing out his right arm tossing penalty flags.
Of course, the players and coaches don't care what you and I - or anyone else - might think about all of the flags for illegal holding, hands to the face and/or illegal contact at this stage. They're concerned with simply being able to execute plays and assignments properly, by the rules…and never mind the aesthetic value of the actual game being played. But here's the problem with that.
No one seems to be getting a grasp on what those rules are just yet. And it's ruining the look and feel of a game that has led the country on the hit charts for years.
Through the first three weeks of the preseason, the NFL's emphasis on enforcing illegal contact down field against the defense has been in full view for everyone to see. Officiating crews have traveled to training camps across the country to inform teams they will call contact when they see it. Last Friday night, 86 penalties were accepted (more were actually committed) in the four games that were played, including the Patriots' match-up with the Eagles. 32 flags were accepted in the New Orleans-Tennessee game alone, with 22 of those thrown at the Saints. Seattle cornerback Tharold Simon had a length-of-the-field (105 yards) pick-six called back against San Diego on a highly questionable contact flag. It was a spectacular play...but it was rubbed out for what looked to be merely incidental contact between Simon and the receiver. So, a potential highlight for the ages (yes, I know, it WAS pre-season) bites the dust over an officials' over-interpretation of the rule.
Are the guys in stripes going to call every bump they see?
Of course, Seattle's "Legion of Boom" defense from last season is a primary reason why we're discussing this now. The physical play of cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner (who is now a Patriot) has caused history to repeat itself. Remember, the league first adjusted to then-Colts GM Bill Polian's whines about Ty Law and the Patriots' physical play against Indianapolis receivers in the 2003 AFC Championship game. So once again, at the bequest of the league, the officials presently seem hell-bent on making a call on contact no matter the intent – protect the receivers at all costs.
Ok, offense helps pay the bills by making the game more attractive, sure…but doesn't defense still win championships? Excuse the digression from the original point.
So what are the rules? What do they really say...or better yet, what will they really mean? And will the officials call things the same way when the regular season begins?
Originally, the illegal contact rule was added to the game in 1978, but it never appeared to be a priority until the Patriots roughed up the Colts 10 years ago. The rules (aka the infamous "Ty Law rule") say a defender may not make contact (interfere) with a player more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. So far, in the early stages of the 2014 season, the zebras have stampeded toward enforcing this rule with renewed vim and vigor, as these first few weeks of the pre-season will attest.
"If you can't play within the rules, you can't play in this league," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said after his team completed its' flag-filled performance against New England, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. "That's the bottom line. You're just handing people first downs. We better figure it out." He then added this unique metaphor: "You don't have to agree with the speed limit, but if the cop is out there with the speed gun, you better take your foot off the gas, or he's going to pull you over."
Nicely worded, Coach Kelly…it's been like pulling cars over for doing 67 in a 65-mph zone. But what do we do – and what does the NFL game do – about intent? Can officials who are being told, and trained, to call things one way simply ease up once the regular season begins? Or do they keep the pedal to the metal…and does the game get bogged down by its own flurry of flags?
That's the worry. That's the concern…unless the players learn to adjust over the next couple of weeks. In an effort to keep the consuming public happy by making offense the priority, has the NFL stepped out-of-bounds in its' literal enforcement of the rules? In typical form, Bill Belichick said Friday night "I can't control that. I'm just trying to coach our team." Perhaps the question should have been re-phrased…not that it would have made much of a difference in the answer. But here goes: How do you coach your team when you don't know how the rule will be enforced once the regular season starts? You'll recall, perhaps, Belichick being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after he attempted to get an explanation on an illegal contact call in the first quarter Friday night.
Tom Brady, during his weekly visit on WEEI, added that it's on the players to adjust. But what are they adjusting to? "You just have to learn to play within the rules. And those adjust on a weekly basis, depending on how the refs call the game," Brady said. "Some refs throw a lot of flags, some refs don't throw a lot of flags. If they're calling it tight, you've got to be able to adjust.
"Hopefully, there's not 20-plus flags a game," Brady added. "That's a lot of flags. That will make for long football games."
ESPN's John Clayton originally came up with this tidbit seen during TV coverage last week: In 256 games last season, there were 37 flags thrown for illegal contact. Through the first 17 pre-season games this year, there were 27 flags thrown for the same penalty. There were nine more thrown for the infraction at Gillette Stadium Friday night as well. Ok, we get it. Don't touch the receivers.
But don't ruin the game trying to touch up the rules, either.
John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots' stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities – which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" during the season on Patriots.com Radio for 13 years, and broadcasting college football and basketball for the past 26 years, Rooke is also a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame.