The Yellow Flags Fly High

Summer.  2014.  NFL fans are fed up.  Tired of watching NFL games that flow smoothly and are generally close to three hours in length, the fans rise up and demand that more penalties be called during a game.  Ask and you shall receive.  Through 64 total games this year, flags are flying at an alarming rate.  Through the first two weeks of the season, 446 penalties have been called for 3,338 yards.  Based off a rough estimate, at this rate approximately five hundred more penalties will be called this year than in 2013.  We now have fields littered in yellow laundry and fans are releasing a collective sigh.  Football is back!

Of course, fans were not clamoring for more penalties.  In fact, many fans I have spoken with are growing quite frustrated with the interrupted play we have seen on the field this year.  As it is fans are normally treated to eleven minutes of actual football action.  Maybe this was this reason the NFL implemented new rules regarding illegal contact, illegal hands to the face, "late" hits, and profanity.  By instructing the referees to enforce these new rules, the games have been longer.  Penalties mean more plays in many cases.  This in turn leads to longer games which leads to more advertising time and selling of ad time to companies.  The NFL must see a nice bottom line with this tactic.

As you may have noticed, I mentioned penalties for the use of profanity.  Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers received the first said penalty for profanity on Sunday night (09/14/14) versus the Chicago Bears.  (A game that had 26 penalties, by the way)  The 49ers quarterback, at this time, denies saying anything that warranted the penalty.  It is my understanding that the penalty flag is to be thrown for racial or homophobic slurs.  I understand the need for this, as the NFL has had off the field image issues plague the league for the last couple of seasons.  To what extent, though, has this rule been enforced.  One player in the last two years flagged for this?  I don't buy it.  I have played sports in the past and many things have been said in the heat of the moment.  These are professional athletes and I played through high school so I can only imagine what these grown men are saying when the violence and energy amps up.  I can only imagine what Kaepernick might have said, but I like to think it was the classic George Costanza line, "Oh, well, I slept with your wife." (Seinfeld, Episode 147 "The Comeback")

There are certain coaches insinuating that the new penalty rules are due to the physical play of the Seattle Seahawks.  Now, I don't consider myself an NFL insider, but I don't remember the Seahawks doing anything that caused the rules to be changed.  Sure, they had 152 penalties last year, but those were called with the old rules in place.  Yes, Seattle's Defense brings with them a smash mouth brand of football that hasn't been seen in awhile.  I am not a Seahawks fan, but I like what the Defense and the "Legion of Boom" brings to the table.  I enjoy watching games in which there is hard hitting and games not totally dominated by the Offense.  Even if the Seahawks were the primary reason for the new rules, it certainly hasn't affected them.  Sure, they are 1-1, but they have adapted and both games I've watched them play have included very little penalties.

The NFL cites safety and fair play amongst their reasons for the new rules.  I've discussed the safety issue here before (The Beginning of the End 04/27/12) so I won't delve into that topic too far.  Yes, the NFL has various pending lawsuits against them and they are looking to protect their future selves from more.  I get it.  Really, I do.  Looking at the fair play angle, I only see changes that continue to help the Offense.  The men on both sides of the ball are elite athletes making split second decisions.  Sometimes the Offensive player makes a last second move.  The Defensive player is already in the air and because the Offensive player has moved, the Defensive player hits the Offensive player illegally.  No tapping a player as he runs out of bounds or it's a fifteen yard penalty.  No hitting the quarterback except in the area between above the knees and below the waist.  No touching a receiver before the ball is thrown to them.  Linemen on both sides of the ball can't hit an opponent in the helmet while in the trenches, not even if it's an accident in which the hand is quickly withdrawn.  Nope.  Automatic penalty.  I could go on but you get my point.  The NFL is trending to a future of flag football that will be nationally televised on the Lifetime Channel.

How do you fix it?  You let the players play the game.  Go back to calling the penalties the way they were originally intended to be called (with an account for taste on the hard hitting, of course.  SOME precautions should be taken).  Give the fans a game in which the teams are actually allowed to play the game.  Believe it or not, the game is just fine without constant tinkering.

In the end, many of the calls on the field are judgment calls by the referees.  They often have to err on the side of caution because if they don't they will be graded lower and may face losing their jobs.  Penalties are slowing down the game.  It will continue to be this way unless something changes.  As for now, the games are still entertaining albeit slightly less so.  Frustration is building.  I watch for entertainment.  The NFL is in the sports entertainment business.  If the product on the field continues to suffer in this way fans will slowly start to turn away from this billion dollar empire.  Instead of passing needless on the field rules, the NFL should figure out the current off the field social issues of its men first.  If Roger Goodell and the NFL continue to ignore this, then that's one giant yellow penalty flag most fans will be unwilling to look past.

*Penalty stats can be seen here: