Aug 22, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; A penalty flag rests on the field during the first quarter in a game between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

NFL: Can penalty flags keep flying at preseason pace?

The NFL made defensive holding, hands to the face and illegal contact on passing plays priorities this offseason and they were enforcing the rules tightly—to say the least—in the preseason.

How tightly? Consider these numbers.

In 2013, regular season and playoffs included, these were the penalty totals, according to NFLPenalties.com:

  • Illegal contact: 38.
  • Defensive holding: 181.
  • Illegal use of hands: 75.

So here were the numbers for four weeks of preseason action, plus the Hall of Fame Game, according to ESPN Stats & Information:

  • Illegal contact: 99.
  • Defensive holding: 172.
  • Illegal use of hands: 124.

So illegal contact was called 61 times more often in the preseason this year than it was in the entire regular season in 2013. At that rate it would be called roughly 395 times, a 939 percent increase.

Aug 24, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; NFL referee Pete Morelli reacts during the game between the Arizona Cardinals against the Cincinnati Bengals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive holding would be called approximately 685 times, an increase of 278 percent.

Illegal use of hands would be called 494 times, give or take, a 559 percent increase.

That’s a lot of penalty flags flying through the air.

For people who would like to see games that (a) don’t take five hours to play and (b) don’t finish with scores that make one think they are watching the Arena Football League, those numbers are not encouraging.

But there’s hope.

There were 41 calls for illegal contact and defensive holding on Thursday night, the final night of the preseason, an average of about 1.28 per game, according to ESPN.com. That compares to a 4.69 per game rate in the first three weeks of the preseason, plus the Hall of Fame Game.

Last year, those two calls were made a combined 0.86 times per game. So 1.28 per game would still represent an increase of 49 percent—which is a lot of yellow laundry being thrown about.

So why did the numbers go down in the final week of the preseason?

There are probably a number of factors at work, not all of them applicable when the regular season starts Thursday night in Seattle.

It’s possible that defensive backs began to adjust, understanding that the league was taking just about a zero-tolerance stance on contact beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage and the grabbing of jerseys and such downfield.

It’s also possible that the officials, after having three weeks plus one game to review their performance in the preseason, realized that maybe they had gone a little overboard and dialed it back a bit.

And one can’t discount the possibility that players and officials, in a quest to keep the clocks moving and avoid injuries in the final preseason tune up, inadvertently joined forces to keep the number of flags down.

One thing is certain, however. If the incidence of penalties for illegal contact, defensive holding and illegal use of hands starts to climb back into the 6.08 rate that it had for the entire preseason, games will bog down, fans will be unhappy, head coaches will be apoplectic and defensive coordinators will be candidates to be locked in rubber rooms, considering their only alternative appears to be stand back and watch teams score at will.

Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

In 2013, there was an average of 41.3 points per preseason game (2,682 points in 65 games). In 2014, with all of the increased flags against the defense, scoring actually went down to 39.9 points per game (2,596 points in 65 games) .

So how is it, with all these extra yards being marked off against the defense, that scoring went down?

For starters, it went down 1.4 points per game, so it’s not as if we’re talking about scoring being at 1977 levels again—the year that prompted the first of the many rules changes designed to promote more offense, particularly passing offense.

The first thought was that, because penalties were tightening the field in the red zone, perhaps there were more field goals kicked this preseason. But no—in 2013, there were 222 field goals made. In 2014, that was down to 193.

But because of the tightening on defensive calls, what did drop were turnovers—a lot. In 2013, teams turned the ball over 222 times in the preseason. This year that number fell to 166.

That meant 56 fewer opportunities to start drives on a short field—an average of almost one turnover per game. And that could account for the decrease that was seen in scoring.

The conventional wisdom is that the number of flags will regulate now that the regular season is here, that the plays in question can still be emphasized without throwing a flag every time a receiver runs a route downfield.

We’ll see if that turns out to be the reality, because when the Shield decides it needs more offense, it usually gets what it wants.

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Tags: NFL Preseason Penalties

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