The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Penalties in NFL preseason games up 44 percent from last year

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has words with an official during New England’s 42-35 preseason victory over Philadelphia on Friday. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)
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The talk of the NFL through two weeks of preseason games hasn’t been the Seattle Seahawks’ bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions. In most locker rooms league-wide, it hasn’t even been rookie Johnny Manziel’s attempt to win the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback job. It has been penalty flags, with penalties up nearly 44 percent from last year’s preseason and games taking close to five minutes longer to play.

The flags have been flying at a dizzying pace on the heels of the NFL making illegal contact by pass defenders and defensive holding in the secondary major points of officiating emphasis for the upcoming 2014 season. And those who think that the officials will call things differently once the regular season begins next month might have to think again.

“Most of them appear to be the points of emphasis, which are hands to the face and defensive holding,” St. Louis Rams Coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the league’s competition committee, said at a postgame news conference last weekend. “So we just have to just keep coaching [players], and just trying to get them to understand that those things are gonna get called. I don’t anticipate anything changing once the regular season starts.”

Defensive backs are feeling increasingly persecuted by the league’s rule-makers and rule-enforcers.

“That was crazy,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said after his team’s preseason game Monday night against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. “That was a little crazy … I was talking to DeSean [Jackson]. He was like, ‘These are bad calls.’ He was saying I wasn’t holding him. I’m like, ‘I know I’m not holding you.’ … We’ve got to kind of adjust our game.”

Total penalties are up 43.7 percent from last year through the first two weeks of preseason games, according to the league’s figures. There have been 756 penalties so far this preseason, compared to 526 last year through two weeks of preseason games.

Of the 230 additional penalties this year, 134 of them have been attributable to increases in illegal contact and defensive holding calls. There have been 55 illegal contact penalties this preseason, up from eight through two preseason games last year. There have been 107 defensive holding penalties, compared to 20 at this point in the 2013 preseason.

The NFL has vowed to strictly enforce the existing rules prohibiting contact by a pass defender more than five yards from the line of scrimmage, and other clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs. It is the first time that the league has made illegal contact a point of officiating emphasis since it did so in each season between 2004 and 2007.

Offensive pass interference calls have more than doubled this preseason with 26, compared to 12 at this point in last year’s preseason. Push-offs by receivers also are a point of emphasis this year.

The increase in penalties undoubtedly has been a contributor to games taking 4 minutes 49 seconds longer to play. According to the league’s figures, games so far this preseason are lasting 3 hours 4 minutes 54 seconds, compared to 3 hours 5 seconds last year through two weeks of preseason games.

“It’s one of things that we don’t really have any control over,” New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said at a news conference this week. “We just need to try to do a better job of what we’re doing and let them [officials] do their job. Whatever it is, we have to play within the rules and understand them and play within them. That’s our job. We have to do a better job of that. I’m just worried about trying to get our team better and coach our team. Let Dean [Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating] and whoever else handle the officials.”

Eagles Coach Chip Kelly said after a penalty-filled game with the Patriots last Friday that players must do a better job of applying what they’ve been taught by coaches.

“We don’t teach that. We don’t teach people to grab receivers after five yards downfield,” Kelly said at his postgame news conference. “And if that becomes your go-to move and that’s what you’ve got to do, you can’t play. You’ve got to figure that out. And we never teach anybody to strike anybody in the face. We’ve got to understand that that’s going to be called. And if that’s going to be called, then you’ve got to fix it. You don’t have to agree with the speed limit. But if the cop’s out there with a speed gun, you better take your foot off the gas or he’s going to pull you over. It’s the bottom line. Rules are rules and you’ve got to follow them.”