Eisenberg: NFL Caught A Case Of Footballus Interruptus


Someone asked me to predict Sunday's game between the Ravens and San Diego Chargers. I closed my eyes, clasped a hand to my forehead, concentrated hard and tried to summon a vision. Unfortunately, I couldn't see who won.

But I could see … flags

That's one thing I know we'll see Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Yellow will fill the air, and I'm not talking about the beautiful falling autumn leaves, some of which I need to rake.

I'm talking about penalty flags. They're falling faster at NFL games than ever before – too often for my tastes.

That's certainly what my eyes have told me as I've watched games this fall. Boy, lots of flags. A steady stream of holding, pass interference, illegal this, illegal that, more holding, more pass interference, etc.

Yes, the Ravens are drawing more than usual. But I've seen it at games involving other teams, too.

The games are still great, never cease to amaze, and millions are watching, as always, but it seems to me the NFL has developed a case of *footballus interruptus, *with penalties halting the flow and rhythm of games.

But is that really true?

Yes, it turns out.

After officials botched a couple of calls in the Ravens' game in Arizona Monday night, bringing the issue to the forefront, I dug for an answer at pro-football-reference.com, the go-to statistical site, which features amazingly in-depth penalty data going back to 1994.

On the question of whether flags are falling faster in 2015, the data is clear. The NFL is on pace to establish an all-time high for penalties this season.

So far, there's an average of 14.74 penalties per game, or 7.37 per team. The Ravens are trending slightly above the average at 7.71 per game – more than they want, for sure, but not overly egregious when put in context. (Declined and offsetting penalties not included.)

The numbers represent an 11 percent increase in penalties league-wide compared to last season, and an astounding 20 percent increase from two years ago.

At the current pace, there will be 638 more penalties in the NFL this season than in 2013. That sounds like an epidemic, although it breaks down to just slightly more than one penalty per team every Sunday.

Interestingly, the needle hasn't moved that much from a decade ago, when the league went crazy emphasizing the illegal-contact rule on passing plays for a couple of years and overall penalty totals skyrocketed.

Other than that brief spike, though, the numbers have held steady for two decades with teams averaging somewhere between five and six penalties per game … until last year and this year.

Officials are getting blamed, drawing the ire of players, coaches and fans as they try to enforce the rules. Their cause isn't helped when crews whiff on basic calls like the ones the nation saw Monday night.

But I'm not a blame-the-refs guy – never have been and never will be. They deserve more respect than they get, in my opinion.

I think the NFL's penalty problem lies more with the rulebook the officials are trying to enforce. It's a tome, and only getting thicker and more complicated as the league tries to control more of what happens on the field.

Collision legislation sounds like a law school class, but it's the reality of officiating in the NFL now. There are all sorts of rules governing where, when and how you can hit people, none of which existed years ago. Lots of other stuff, too. 

Of course, a lot of the additions are intended to enhance player safety, making them important and necessary. But I'm seeing flags interrupt the flow of games. I'm seeing everyone look for yellow at the end of every passing play. I'm seeing officials who look like they've tried to memorize an encyclopedia.

The job of knowing and enforcing the rulebook is becoming more challenging.

For years, I've heard it argued that the league should use some of its profits to hire and train a stable of fulltime officials, as opposed to using part-timers, as it currently does. But I'm not sure that's the answer.

It might just be easier to hire an editor with a mean red pencil and let he/she take a whack at the rulebook. Surely there are ways to lower the penalty total while trying to keep players safe.

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