Why you should care
Because they’re slowing down football.
When officials called Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick for defensive pass interference during a Week 13 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football, color commentator Jon Gruden said it “might be the worst call I’ve seen.” And that play came after two dubious holding penalties in the third quarter negated a 96-yard kickoff return by Martavis Bryant of the Steelers and a 61-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green of the Bengals.
“There were two touchdowns called back by penalty that were really hard to find,” Sean McDonough, the play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football, tells OZY.
Including the two flags, which nullified the two touchdowns, the teams combined for 20 penalties for 239 yards. Those bloated numbers are part of a trend affecting the NFL, as referees are throwing more — and often controversial — flags than they did in the past.
They’re not letting them play.
ESPN NFL Insider Matt Bowen
The number of accepted penalties fluctuates every year, and the absolute number during the regular season actually decreased marginally from 3,545 in 2015 to 3,447 in 2016, and 3,420 in 2017, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But a similar two-year dip between 2011 and 2013 was followed by a sharp increase in penalties, highlighting the fallacy of concluding any trend over such a short period. It’s by looking at a longer time span — the past eight years — that a pattern emerges. The past four seasons, from 2014 to 2017, witnessed 13,798 accepted penalties, 1,062 more than the 12,736 between 2010 and 2013. In other words, an average season in the past four years had 265 accepted penalties more than a year from early in the decade. And that isn’t because of any one year with an inordinate number of penalties; each of the past four years recorded more penalties than any of the previous four.
“They’re not letting them play,” says ESPN NFL Insider Matt Bowen, whose social media accounts are flooded by fan complaints during games about the number of penalties. “We can’t officiate these guys like they’re robots.”
NFL television ratings fell 9.7 percent during the 2017 regular season, according to numbers from Nielsen obtained by ESPN’s Darren Rovell. A typical game was watched by 1.6 million fewer people this season in comparison to last season. And that’s after NFL ratings declined 8 percent from the year before. Concussion awareness, national anthem-related controversies, injuries to star players and cord-cutting are all factors in that decline, but the increasing number of penalties is likely an overlooked reason. “It disrupts the flow of the game,” Bowen says. “It’s leading to a less enjoyable experience for fans.”
To legislate concussions out of the game, the NFL now imposes penalties for hits on defenseless receivers or when a defender grazes the helmet of a quarterback. But that has a byproduct. “They’re [so] focused on player safety and protecting players that that’s kind of spilled over a little bit into how they’re calling the game,” says Bowen, who played 77 games as an NFL defensive back from 2000 to 2006. “Anything outside the framework of what is drawn up in the rulebook is being called right now.”
But refs aren’t the only ones to blame. Another reason for the rise in penalties is a decline in players’ techniques. The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that runs till 2020 mandates less contact and less practice time. With less time to hone their craft, the players’ fundamentals have suffered. They often get out of position and then panic. A receiver takes a poor angle so he blocks in the back, or a cornerback is out of position so he pulls or grabs, acts that often result in holding. After the current CBA was implemented in 2011, accepted penalties rose by 188 over the previous season.
In fact, McDonough argues that officiating during games usually isn’t even controversial enough to require commentary. He has joked with MNF’s officiating expert, Gerry Austin, that Austin’s family doesn’t believe he’s part of the crew because he appears so infrequently on broadcasts. “The vast majority of games we work on Monday Night Football — and that I watch — are actually very well-officiated,” says McDonough.
During his annual state of the league address prior to Super Bowl LII, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell noted there’s room for improvement but praised the officiating overall, calling it “outstanding.”
What has been handled less adeptly is instant replay. Since the NFL centralized its replay prior to the season, giving NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron and his New York-based crew final say, the process seems interminable. “They’ve got to streamline the replay process,” says Doug Farrar, Bleacher Report’s NFL lead scout. “Watching a bunch of old guys in striped shirts watch a replay for 15 minutes during a playoff game, that can affect [ratings].”
Another officiating issue is the confusion over what is a catch, a problem most notably displayed when the Steelers’ Jesse James’ touchdown catch against the New England Patriots was overturned, possibly costing them a victory. “To all the world, anyone who’s been watching football for a long time, that was a catch,” McDonough said.
Going forward, Goodell says the NFL will re-examine the definition of a “catch.” And Bowen says the targeting area — where a defender can legally hit — will continue to shrink, though he doesn’t think contact will be eliminated to the point that the game will turn into flag football, pointing out that physicality remains on plays inside the tackles.
NFL officials, though, will continue to call the game tight for the foreseeable future. “The concussion thing is not going to go away,” says Farrar. “The penalties are not going to decrease. I’m fairly certain of that because ‘concussion’ is a buzzword, an anti-NFL buzzword, so the NFL will do whatever it takes to manage and mitigate that.”
And it’s more than just the sheer number of penalties. Questionable calls against the Jacksonville Jaguars — and missed ones against the New England Patriots — were studied like the Zapruder film by conspiracy-minded fans following the AFC championship game. One more reason why the folks in the striped jerseys will be under a microscope in Sunday’s Super Bowl. “Some of those plays can honestly cost you a touchdown or cost you a game,” says Eagles defensive back Rodney McLeod. It’s also costing the NFL the support of fans.