NFL officials are bringing balance back to football

As more penalty flags fly, it's time players adjust or move on

August 21, 2014|Mike Preston

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was having a conversation with league officials before a recent preseason game when he jokingly said what many defensive backs are thinking these days.

His point, though, was valid.

"There is more contact now in the NBA than the NFL," Pees said, laughing. "What we are being called for is not a foul in the NBA. If you look in the paint, those guys are pushing, shoving and elbowing each other.

"I'm all for safety in the game where they prohibit launching and helmet to helmet, but I don't know where we're headed from here. I really don't."

It's a smart move by the NFL. It isn't so much about jazzing up the offense and increasing scoring, but cutting down on the muggings by defensive backs of receivers in the NFL.

It really had gotten out of hand, and was a clear violation of the rules. As long as officials allowed it to happen, we were going to see more and more of this style of play.

As they say in the NFL, if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying.

Well, maybe now they will stop trying and cheating. In this preseason, the league was out to set a tone by emphasizing illegal contact on receivers more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage as well as defensive holding and illegal use of hands.

According to ESPN there have been 112 defensive holding calls in 33 preseason games in 2014, compared with 20 in the first 33 games a year ago. There have been 71 illegal use of hands penalties in 2014 as opposed to 17 at this point in 2013, and 47 more illegal contact penalties than there were this time last year.

And the flags won't stop coming once the regular season starts. It's adjust or move on.

"A foul is a foul," said Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who is in favor of the tighter calls. "Guys will change. They have to, because if they don't they will be getting penalties every week and then there will be new players. If the new players don't change, then that team will be looking for a new coach."

A lot of coaches agree with Lewis, but they say the new rules are still being defined. They are right. In some games there have been a lot of flags with very little contact, and in other games receivers are still getting pushed around with few calls.

The bottom line is that the coaches know that the league now has a no-hands-on policy regardless. Eventually, the officials will get it right and there will be more consistency in the calls.

"I think New York [home of NFL headquarters] needs to send out videos with the new rules so you can see what is and what isn't," said Lewis, who is on the NFL's competition committee. "Once those videos are sent out, there will be much more of a clearer picture."

Pees thinks the new emphasis on the rules puts a lot of pressures on officials.

"It used to be that as long as you didn't impede the receiver's progress or you weren't pulling or tugging on his jersey, there was no foul," Pees said. "I think it is hard for officials 20 to 30 yards back to make this call, especially on an inside receiver within 5 yards. I don't know how they can physically do that."

The stricter interpretations will favor the offense, but that is nothing new. The NFL is pass-happy, and high-scoring offenses are more attractive to fans than great defense.

According to former Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, now a coaching intern with the Buffalo Bills, he has already seen receivers taking advantage .

"Of course they are," said McAlister, who is working with the Bills' secondary along with former Ravens assistant coach Donnie Henderson. "They know you can't get hands on them after five yards so they are leaning into cornerbacks after five yards to initiate contact.

"If you lean back into them you get a flag. If you lean away and they stumble then you get a flag. It would have been a tough adjustment for me, but I would have adapted. If you don't then you're going to draw 20 flags in two weeks."

Coaches have made adjustments in their techniques. In press coverage more cornerbacks are jamming receivers within two or three yards of the line of scrimmage instead of waiting until they get five.

The problems occur after five yards. If you jam a receiver early, there is a lot of space for him to work in afterward, especially in long passing situations. The new interpretations are changing how often a team now stays in one, two or three deep coverage.

Linebackers are affected just as much as players in the secondary.

"Most of them are already lined up 4 to 4.5 yards off the line of scrimmage," Pees said. "So when you're lined up over a tight end, at 5 yards most of them aren't going to be thinking that fast where they have to get their hands off them."

Pees remembers when the league first instituted the illegal contact rule after five yards.

"We beat up Indianapolis' receivers 10 yards down the field in that 2003 playoff games with Indianapolis," said Pees, a former New England Patriots defensive coordinator. "We really go after them."

Receivers have been getting beat up ever since, and a lot of it has been against the rules.

"These rules aren't an advantage for the offense, just cleaning up the mugging that has been going on," said Lewis. "Players got into this habitual holding, grabbing players on the inside of their jerseys and beating their chests as if they had done something. Now, it has to stop, and that's the way the rules were originally intended."

And now, that's the way the game will be called.

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