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In The NFL, It's Raining Flags

It's been a penalty-filled preseason thanks the NFL's new "points of emphasis" for officials.  (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
It's been a penalty-filled preseason thanks the NFL's new "points of emphasis" for officials. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

If you like football and yellow's your favorite color, you're in luck. NFL penalty flags are logging some serious frequent flier miles this preseason as officials work to enforce the league's "points of emphasis" for the upcoming season.

The Monday night preseason matchup between Washington and Cleveland featured 21 penalties. Mark Craig notes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that officials have called an average of 23.6 penalties so far this preseason. Last year's average: 12.7.

"It just seems like every couple plays there's another flag."

New England safety Devin McCourty

"Even last night watching [Washington and Cleveland], it just seems like every couple plays there's another flag," he said. "So it'll be tough for people trying to watch the game that have work in the morning and stuff like that."

The call getting the most attention is illegal contact with receivers downfield. Darrelle Revis, one of the league's top cornerbacks, says the calls force players to make an adjustment.

"It's tough. It's tough. I think we just gotta work through it. Teams have been working through it during this preseason. I think it's a learning situation for everybody," said Revis, who is in his first camp with the Patriots after spending last season with Tampa Bay. "The refs are tryin' do the best they can. As players, we tryin' to do the best we can by keeping our hands off the receivers down the field. And it's a learning process. Maybe in the regular season things might change. You never know."

McCourty said NFL cornerbacks are taking the brunt of the calls, but safeties are affected, too.

"It's a little different, but we have some of the same issues as far as how we're covering guys, too, like tight ends coming off the line of scrimmage," he said. "Things that you might have gotten away with [before], you might not get away with. But I think it's hard to try to change your whole game. We don't want to start giving up long passes and touchdowns just to say, 'I didn't want illegal contact.' So, hopefully they just reduce the flags and we get to play a little bit."

[sidebar title="NFL Refs: A Week In The Life" width="630" align="right"]What's it like being an NFL official? Here's our look at a typical week for a ref.[/sidebar]But even with more flags flying, you won't find McCourty turning around to see if there's a patch of yellow on the turf.

"As a [defensive back] you're trained never to look for a flag. It's makes 'em throw 'em more," he said.

The changes follow a record-setting season for NFL offenses. The average point total for an NFL game in 2013 was 46.8. That broke a mark that had stood since 1948.

In a column published Tuesday, Christopher Gasper of The Boston Globe argues that the emphasis on downfield contact is a direct result of the popularity of fantasy football:

"With each over-officious, halting preseason game played with the aim of letting receivers run wild and free, we are witnessing the nexus between fantasy football and actual football. Fueling fantasy football, which has a heavy reliance on the stats of offensive players, has become the new reality in the NFL."

One change that does work in favor of the defensive backs is the league's decision to be more strict about receivers pushing off at the top of their routes. It's common to see a receiver sprint out and give a cornerback a shove as he's about to make a cut to create separation and get open.

And the NFL is putting several other rules on referees' priority lists. (Each rule is explained with game footage in this video produced by the league.)

  • Trash talk — including racial slurs and comments about sexual orientation — falls under unsportsmanlike conduct and will be strictly enforced.
  • Cut blocks or "rolling up" on a defensive player's legs from the side and back will be prohibited.
  • Hits to the head, face, and neck at the line of scrimmage (by both offensive and defensive players) will draw flags.
  • False starts. Offensive lineman, particularly centers, have been making more movements that look like the start of a play. Officials will be looking for more false start calls regardless of whether the move gets defenders to jump.
  • No more dunking the ball to celebrate a touchdown: unsportsmanlike conduct.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said while there's a lot of buzz about the impact on cornerbacks, most of the players on the field have been affected.

"There’s probably as many offensive holding, hands to the face, defensive hands to the face; I don’t think we’ve ever seen than many of those called either. It’s like it’s for everybody. Linebackers — the illegal contact on the tight ends and re-routing receivers and so forth," Belichick said. "Really, I think it has application to all the defensive skill players and offensive and defensive linemen with all the holding, hands to the face, roll blocks. Again, there are no new rules but certainly a lot of calls in those areas."

Of course, more penalties mean more stops in play, which means you're much less likely to miss something exciting while you're out in the kitchen reloading on snacks.

Doug Tribou Twitter Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.

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