Have you enjoyed watching preseason football? It's usually pretty bad to begin with but this year through two weeks it has been an abomination with so many penalties called. What will that mean starting Week 1 of the regular season?
Flag Day Is Every Day!
Let's go ahead and blame the world champion Seattle Seahawks for the sea of yellow flags we have seen through the first two weeks of the preseason (three if you count the Giants and Bills Hall of Fame opener). The NFL likes offense. So do the TV networks. It's why quarterbacks and receivers are the biggest stars of the game -- not so much running backs these days as their value has been minimized.
So what the NFL didn't like to see was that Seattle top-ranked defense dominate that record-setting Denver Broncos offense in the Super Bowl. Seattle's monster defensive backs, led by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, had been manhandling people all season, both at the line of scrimmage and downfield, and largely getting away with it.
Thus the NFL's Competition Committee this offseason decided to crack down on those two "Seattle" infractions: illegal contact (no touching a receiver five yards past the line of scrimmage) and defensive holding. It's the first time the league emphasized a change in illegal contact since 2007.
The result so far in the preseason: Officials have thrown 111 flags for defensive holding (3.3 per game), 71 for illegal use of the hands (2.2 per game) and 56 for illegal contact (1.7 per game). A total of 23.7 penalties have been called per game, with the Saints getting 22 alone in their last game against Tennessee. For comparison, last regular season the average game featured 12.7 penalties. There were 212 defensive holding calls all last season (0.82 per game), 190 illegal use of hands (0.74 per game) and 54 illegal contact (0.21 per game). In Week 2 of the 2013 preseason, teams averaged 7.7 penalties and 65.1 yards. This year, it was 10.4 penalties and 86.3 yards. There have been 756 penalties this preseason, compared to 526 last year through two exhibition weeks.
Clearly the officials got the message, and if you believe NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino it will carry over to the regular season: "We're not going to change how we're calling the games once the regular season starts,'' Blandino told Peter King's MMQB site. "The way the game's being officiated now is the way it's going to be officiated when the season begins. We have to remain consistent."
Thus some are speculating that scoring will skyrocket because of all those free first downs for the offenses. That would be impressive considering NFL games averaged 46.8 points in 2013, 2.4 points more than the previous record. Denver set the single-season record for points and passing yards. Nine teams averaged at least 26 points, including teams you normally associate with defense such as Seattle, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Chicago.
I wouldn't overreact to what we are seeing. The referees simply will not carry this over into the regular season because the football has been unwatchable and the games are dragging. The NFL is incredibly image conscious and won't ruin its regular-season product. In addition, defensive coordinators will adjust. They always do. Perhaps that means more soft zones, allowing teams more of an opportunity to run the ball. Maybe it means more blitzing. True, that can lead to big plays, but a quarterback under pressure is a more inaccurate thrower.
There's one other small detail to keep in mind when making NFL Picks, and will likely mean points might not appreciably change: the officials also have been told to harp on receivers pushing off and have called 26 offensive interference calls (0.76 per game), more than double through the 2013 preseason. In the 2013 regular season there were only 76 total offensive interference calls (0.30 per game). Those types of calls are going to wipe out some big plays.
NFL Betting Impact
Don't start betting all "overs" on NFL Odds simply because of the preseason, although Vegas has adjusted. Every Week 3 preseason game had a total of at least 41.5, which is unheard of. This is just a fad. It will all even out. Defense still wins championships.