Through the first three weeks of the season, there have been 884 penalties called (including those declined as well as those enforced), according to the league’s figures. That is 18.42 penalties per game, which is up about 8 percent from the 17.02 penalties per game in the first three weeks of last season and way up, nearly 25 percent, from the 14.77 penalties per game through Week 3 in the 2013 season.
It is believed to be the most penalties ever in the first three weeks of an NFL season, according to the league.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, says he is neither surprised nor alarmed.
“No, not at all,” Blandino said via e-mail. “Each year at the beginning of the season the players are adjusting to how the game is being officiated. Historically penalties level off as the season progresses and I anticipate that will be the case this year too.”
But some observers say the difference is noticeable and the number of penalties is becoming disruptive for fans.
“I can see the [penalties for] defensive illegal contact,” former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker said. “That’s opening up the game and helping people score more points. But some of it, I don’t understand. It’s starting to turn people off. I see it on Twitter. I hear it from my friends. You used to see this happen during the preseason and then they’d scale it back during the season. Now it’s happening during the season and there’s no question it’s hurting the overall product.”
Before last season, the NFL made illegal contact and holding by defenders in the secondary points of officiating emphasis, along with push-offs by receivers constituting offensive pass interference. There have been a total of 118 illegal contact, defensive holding and offensive pass interference penalties through three weeks this season, up considerably from 57 such penalties through Week 3 two years ago but actually down from last season’s 142.
Those penalties again were points of emphasis for the officials this season, along with others — illegal use of hands, unnecessary roughness and taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct — that were carried over from last season. Illegal formations by the offense were added as a point of emphasis for this season, Blandino said, because the league noticed such violations occurring frequently during the preseason.
According to the league, about one-third of this season’s penalties are line of scrimmage and snap infractions such as delay of game, illegal formation, false start, illegal motion, offside, too many players, illegal shift and illegal substitution.
Perhaps most notably, offensive holding penalties are up to 182 this season, compared to 157 through three weeks of last season.
Blandino said he is satisfied that officials are enforcing the points of emphasis properly and calling the games as the league wants them called.
One NFL head coach attributed the uptick in penalties to a “combination” of factors that includes sloppy play and more stringent officiating. He largely blamed coaching, which he said has become “too lax” league-wide.
“We need to do better,” the coach said.
Tucker also said multiple factors are involved.
“Poor offensive line play has been part of it,” said Tucker, now an NFL analyst for several media outlets and the host of his own football podcast. “But you also see the points of emphasis play into it. It seems like there are about two offensive pass interference calls per game for guys blocking early on screen passes and things like that. You didn’t used to see that.
“It seems like they’re calling it closer on offensive holding and defensive illegal contact. I see calls they didn’t used to make. I’m stunned the NFL is going this way and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t change by the playoffs. I’ve always been a believer of when in doubt, let them play.”
Last season, there were 17.02 penalties per game through Week 3 but only 16.1 penalties per game for the season as a whole. That still was up from 14.1 penalties per game in 2013 and 14.7 penalties per game in 2012.
“I don’t know the answer but I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions,” a high-ranking official with one NFL team said. “I do think the players will adjust to the manner in which calls are being made. They always do.”
The attractiveness of the game to spectators in the stands and television viewers certainly matters to the NFL. There isn’t much flow to a game with yellow laundry everywhere.
“Pace of game is always a point of focus for us and something we emphasize throughout the year,” Blandino said. “We want the officials to call the penalties that are there, and we anticipate those fouls will decrease as the season moves along. Right now we have a small sample size, but we think there will be fewer fouls as we play more games.”