Football the Way It Ought To Be: Flag-Free

Notice something missing from wild-card weekend? The first round of the playoffs was blissfully light on penalties—especially against pass defenses—and, not coincidentally, officiating controversies. That’s good for the game

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·
Penalties were down significantly compared to recent wild-card weekends, which meant pass-defenders had a chance to do their jobs. (Andrew Hancock for Sports Illustrated)
Penalties were down significantly compared to recent wild-card weekends, which meant pass-defenders had a chance to do their jobs. (Andrew Hancock for Sports Illustrated)

Now that’s more like it.

On the opening weekend of the playoffs, NFL officials put away their penalty flags, swallowed their whistles and even Ed Hochuli kept his verbiage to a bare minimum. (Though that may be because he couldn’t speak through his Hannibal Lecter mask in the Green Bay cold.)

The best teams and players got to determine games, without the referees butting into the outcomes as they had all season. It wasn’t an illusion, it really happened: After an average of 12.3 penalties for 105.6 yards during the regular season, officials called an average of 7.8 penalties for 63.3 yards per game on Wild-Card weekend. That’s a significant drop, and it’s down from the playoffs in the recent past as well. The previous two postseasons averaged 9.8 penalties per game (for 74.5 yards in ’13, 93.3 in ’12) on wild-card weekend. In 2010 we had 8.5 penalties for 57.0 yards.

Sean Payton and his coaching brethren had little to complain about, as officials mostly kept out of the way. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated)
Sean Payton and his coaching brethren had little to complain about, as officials mostly kept out of the way. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated)

Yes, there were a few blatantly missed calls—notably 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree getting assaulted in the end zone by Davon House with 2:25 left in the first quarter, and Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith tackling Ray McDonald on Aaron Rodgers’ miraculous 4th-and-2 conversion, and a few more offensive holding penalties could have been mixed in—but the relatively zebra-free football was glorious. While there were a few defensive holding penalties, there was just one pass interference penalty, with its ludicrous spot foul punishment. This was real football again, like when most of us were kids. You know, when the teams that could play defense (not the Chiefs and Colts) actually had a chance to do so. What a novel concept.

(Let’s all take a moment to be thankful that Bill Polian is at ESPN instead of in charge of the Colts. We could have been facing an emergency meeting of the competition committee before their game against the Patriots. Thanks to his whining after New England roughed up his Colts in the ’03 AFC Championship Game, Polian used his influence to get pass interference and defensive holding called more strictly. That led to penalties increasing on wild-card weekend from 8.3 per game in ’03 to 13.5 in ’04. Thanks for that.)

But here’s my question after a weekend in which I kept most of my hair instead of pulling it out over inconsistent officiating: Why can’t it always be like this? Why can’t the regular season be officiated the same way as the postseason?

When flags were called for, as with Cory White’s mugging of DeSean Jackson, the yellow flew. (Damian Strohmeyer/SI)
When flags were called for, as with Cory White’s mugging of DeSean Jackson, the yellow flew. (Damian Strohmeyer/SI)

I want to see a world in which downfield contact is permitted against receivers unless the receiver is in the act of actually catching the ball. Why is it that receivers are the only players on the field who can’t be touched while performing their duty? The NFL even permits quarterbacks to be whacked while they’re throwing the ball—albeit apparently in a 3-inch-by-3-inch zone. Actually, forget I mentioned that. I don’t want to give the owners any more ideas about making quarterbacks into bubble boys.

We all know why the regular season-to-postseason disparity will likely continue: fantasy football and TV ratings. NFL owners think fans love points and gaudy yardage numbers because it makes their fantasy scores light up like a pinball machine. While it’s true that most of us are big, dumb animals easily distracted by bright lights and flashy numbers, fantasy football and the NFL in general would be just as popular if the playing field were evened up between the offense and defense. We come to worship at the altar of football, and all that comes with it: the camaraderie, the beer drinking, the trash talking. We’ve always been here. People will watch whether there are 89 points on the scoreboard or 29.

It’s a physical game, and letting the teams play won‘t detract from fans’ enjoyment. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
It’s a physical game, and letting the teams play won‘t detract from fans’ enjoyment. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Peyton Manning and his Broncos are probably a little uptight right now about how their precision passing game will function in a postseason in which the defense can bump them off their routes with impunity. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who won his three Super Bowl titles on the back of a tough, physical defense and not on Tom Brady averaging 300 yards per game, was probably watching this weekend saying, “Come to Papa,” and texting cornerback Aqib Talib to prepare to use the bear hug technique for the rest of the playoffs.

Guess what? That’s football, the way it has always been played. It was nice to see it back. Let’s hope it wasn’t just a fleeting glance.

themmqb.com

51 comments
Matt72
Matt72

Best said,  When the first reaction EVERYONE has after an incomplete third down throw is to look around for a flag...........The Refs are wayyy too penalty happy. 

BillyBlack
BillyBlack

HAhah a Boston guy complaining about another team whining for calls. I guess he hasn't watched a Patriots game since 2003. Tom Brady does more in game crying than Nancy Kerrigan. If you can find me one close game in the past ten years that Tom Brady didn't cry for, and get, at least one pass interference call I'd love to know which one. How many times this year alone did that happen? Couldn't have beaten the Browns (that's right the BROWNS) without a terrible PI call which put them at the one. The fact is, without the refs Tommy boy and company would be a .500 team. Pray for some PI calls this weekend Greg... you're gonna need them

Mike26
Mike26

Greg:


Your homerism is proudly on display.  Your rant about Polian demanding rules be enforced rings through as arrogant, egotistical and selfish.  My gosh, how DARE another team (or teams) around the league desire to have the rules enforced!  The NERVE!  


The lack of flags this weekend won't, and shouldn't, last. If it does, the playoffs will look like the thugball days of the NBA after Magic/Bird retired.  It will drive the casual fans away as play will slog itself to a near-standstill.


You have been much better than this a majority of the season.  Don't ruin it now - I don't agree with everything you write but this was high school-journalism amateurish garbage.  You REALLY need to let that disgust of the Colts/Polian and remember - the Pats haven't won a title since their Spygate episode.  The football gods have no time for that type of low-class behavior...

Don38
Don38

I couldn't disagree more with this writer.  Officials should call the games just as they did in weeks 1-17.  Many of todays offenses passing games are built on timing routes.  You can't officiate one way all year and then change it up in the playoffs!!  The NFL needs to decide what it is they want and make sure their refs stick with it.

AveFootballFan
AveFootballFan

What a shock, Greg Bedard, formerly of the Boston Globe, thinks the Colts were "whining" when complaining about the lack of penalties in the '03 Championship Game.


There's a difference between letting them play and what happened in that game.  The Patriots defensive scheme that day consisted of holding the Colts receivers and hoping for no call.  It probably succeeded far greater than even Belichick could imagine as only 3 penalties were called against the Patriots that day, none for holding or PI.  Near the end, I recall a Patriots LB tackling a Colts TE before the ball arrived, with no call.  Is that just letting them play, Greg?


As for thanking Polian for getting the NFL to enforce the rules as written, did you also thank Polian after each season Tom put up record breaking numbers?  After all, it was Polian's "whining" for rules enforcement that allowed Tom to do his thing.


I like seeing more defense than was played in the Colts/Chiefs game last weekend, but if I had to choose between watching a team with Brady bombing away to Moss or a team relying on old, slow, recycled veterans mugging receivers, I'll take the fireworks each time.


Got to hand it to Massholes like Bedard and Simmons though, they can hold a grudge longer AFTER winning than most can after a loss.

Hawaii007
Hawaii007

What an ignorant column.  The rules are the rules, if there is a PI, defensive holding, or illegal contact, then it should be called.  According to this article, it wasn't like after 2003 they changed the rules regarding those penalties, the officials were just told to enforce it more strictly, in other words, call it in accordance to the rules.  How is that bad?  In other words, this article advocates having a game played where players doing illegal things are rewarded by not being flagged?  

JKG
JKG

When the only coach complaining is a Harbaugh, something is going right.

That said, the problem isn't the refs. (Oh, by the way: The refs are "biased" not "bias."  Learn the language.)  The problem is with the rulebook.  One of the things I love about rugby is that they don’t have “rules.” They have “laws.”

Application of the laws of the game is in the discretion of the game official and includes application guidelines such as a bias for continuity of gameplay and judging whether the guilty party created an advantage by his infraction. Rather than trying to micro-legislate every infraction (such as pass interference, e.g.) the laws establish a principle and the game official’s role is to determine whether the spirit of the law was broken or an actual advantage gained during the course of play. 

The NFL instead attempts to regulate every possible permutation of the action.  Rather than rest content with gray areas and permit official discretion to manage the game, the rulebook attempts to draw a bright line for every possible instance.  This is simply not possible given the almost infinite number of ways a play can unfold.  The result is confused and seemingly arbitrary officiating.  Flags are thrown as prophylactics, lest an infraction be missed, or not at all out of confusion as to which caveat to the exception to the sub-rule applies.

Because subjectivity is the norm in rugby, there is much less scrutiny of definitions and interpretations. Fans still argue about calls, because that’s what fans do. But because the final arbiter of rule interpretation is the game official, consistency is much easier to achieve: consistency of style. The only exception is close tries and kicks, reviewed in the booth (none of this absurd “under the hood” stuff).

This approach would chop the rule book down by 3/4 and, IMO, improve the flow and integrity of the game immeasurably.

If anyone wants some of what I’m smoking, PM me.

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

I couldn't agree more with you the fact that it wasn't a one sided officiated game is what I like the most as a Hawks fan I see the one sided Officiating more then most it seems the refs have it out for the Hawks being from the PNW I really do hope it continues this way during the rest of the play offs as I hate it when the ref's decide who wins the game it makes it not worth watching 

Rick56
Rick56

Flag free for PI when there should have been flags for PI...especially, in the GB (whom should have the most) and Niners game. 

skiritai4
skiritai4

While I do think rules should be enforced, offensive players always get the benefit of every change in the rule book. For people whining about defenses being "less taented" you should watch soccer os something like that. Football is a physical sport, and I am getting tired of defenders not being able to hit receivers or the qb anywhere because they might draw a flag.

ScottM.Wright
ScottM.Wright

I'm not sure that the officials not calling things is the right thing.  By admission, I'm a Bengals fan.  Last year, there were a number of poorly called games down the regular season stretch, and it was clear that the mandate for the wild card weekend was, "Don't call anything unless it's blatant."  In the Bengals/Texans game, they basically decided not to call anything in the line game.  The Bengals perceived strength (D-Line) was completely neutralized by a Texans' game plan that included rampant holding, illegal chop blocks (a key feature of Kubiak's run game), and clipping.  At one point the commentators pointed out that Geno Atkins had been illegally chopped a number of times.  When you're risking injury to marquee players because the officials won't blow the whistle, you've gone too far.  (If you don't want to take my word for it, re-watch that game and focus on the line play.  It's eye-opening.)


In 2009, the same mentality basically allowed Derrel Revis to mug every receiver he saw in the post-season.  Again, watch the tape.  He's an elite cover guy, but even he understands that it's much easier to stop top-flight WRs when no-one is calling holding.  Why let him take the easy way out?


Swallowing the whistle isn't the key to good football.  Being on top of the game, getting to penalties early, and managing expectations make for a better experience.  You hit a CB with a PI call early, let 'em know that you're watching them, and see how they react.


Net, anyone who says "Let 'em Play" is either rooting for teams with lower talent levels (the more talented teams tend to benefit when the rules are enforced), or doesn't understand the role of proper officiating.

KristopherLohmuller
KristopherLohmuller

Crabtree getting robbed in the end zone? How about Jones having both arms held by two defenders on a long throw and still almost making the catch? I seriously had one Niner fan tell me that the Niners O-Line never held. Utter BS.


Only non-call in Green Bay-SF game I hated was Boldin not getting called for Illegal Contact when he blocked for a Kaepernick run by shoving the CB in the helmet with his hand (and no, the CB wasn't holding him at the same time). Bakhtiari got called for the same ticky-tack penalty earlier in the game.


Other than that, the non-calls went to both teams for the same reason, so nothing to complain about.

thomasoverley
thomasoverley

blah article but there is nothing worse then watching a DB act like he did something amazing then they show the replay and you see he was holding one of the guys arms the whole play

robertpetry
robertpetry

Poor column here.  DB's bumping receivers is one thing, but grabbing, holding, shoving while the ball is in the air?  That is not a legal part of the game.  There were several missed pass interference and illegal contacts that made a big difference.  One non-sense call and a couple of missed calls in the Colts/Chiefs that I saw.  Certainly had an effect on the game.  


It is quality that is lacking.  I know it is tough and this is not new but missed calls either way are a big deal.  


And I have to say some of the spots this year have been way off.  The line judge should be able to get within a half yard or so most of the time right?

JohnFerguson
JohnFerguson

The crews for the playoffs and Super Bowl are assembled from the highest ranked officials from across the league. The have never worked together as a crew before. The officials often don't make the adjustments in their coverage responsibilities and penalties are missed. The best teams are playing in the playoffs and, because they are more talented, they don't need to cause penalties to be effective on the field.

DavidMcKinney
DavidMcKinney

Your premise that  the best cheaters should have the advantage is stupid. The honor totally left sports when all the money came in (even my spell check here doesn't see honor even as a word).  The love affair between Jordan and the press ended the game of basketball which is now just organized mayhem admitted to by commentators, coaches and refs.

vincedarnone
vincedarnone

I disagree with the premise of the article. If something is a penalty, it needs to be called. Not doing so does not make the "Game better." In the two more egregeious fouls he cited, he's referring to them as innocent casualties in a war against over-penalizing. However, they are only "innocent" because the 49ers won the game. Had they not done so, the relative "controversy free" weekend may have had that game as it's exception. I'm not a fan of a particular team in the playoffs. I also don't believe that the game suffers from too many penalties for holding or interference. These plays are among the most likely calls/ non-calls that can influence a game's outcome. I do, however, feel the penalties should be reduced. (5 yards for holding/ 15 yard penalty for interference rather than the spot of the foul.)

#31DShell
#31DShell

1. Everyone, including me, has been commenting on how this trend bodes so well for the Seahawks. I feel confident that I speak for all the locals when I say we'll believe that when we see it. Not a moment before.


2. Very pleased to see 2 examples of them getting the measurement issue under 2:00 correct. Stop the clock and make sure the down call is correct. Avoid the Shanahan embarrassment. It is nice to see mistakes get fixed. Credit where it's due.

reed
reed

Were the officials told not to show up? They sure as hell were a no-show in the 9ers - packers game. To be fair, the refs were consistently bad. I can't believe Bedard is celebrating bad officiating.

AllThingsConsidered
AllThingsConsidered

I completely disagree. Eliminating - or at least reducing - mistakes by referees is what make the game better. Having the referees stay out of the way when actual penalties occur - does not. You cannot rejoice just because the games were "zebra-free"


The two non-called penalties that you give as an example in the 49ers-Packers lead to a 14 point differential in favor of the Packers. There were non-calls on the 4ers tool, but nothing of that magnitude to compensate.  Ultimately it didn't matter since the 49ers won, but had the 49ers lost, you could definitely have said that the refs sent the Packers to the next round. Is that what you call better for the game?

DeCato253
DeCato253

Hopefully this will continue in the divisional round, you're a fool if you can't see that just the name "Legion of Boom" has induced more ticky-tack penalties over the last 2 years for the Seahawks than any other team, by a wide margin.  Officials come into our games specifically looking to even the playing field...in an un-even way.  The try to limit our strengths and turn them into weakness.  Hawks fans have learned not to hope for a level playing field...we are always disappointed.  Here's to hoping the NFL get's it right for the remainder of the playoffs

GreenFresh
GreenFresh

I agree with George.


And even if there's some merit to the sentiment, the shot at Bill Polian seems kind of churlish. Nor am I sure the point is substantiated. Are you saying that in 2004 there were roughly five more pass interference and defensive holding calls per wild-card game -- or 20 more such calls over the weekend -- than the year before? I doubt it. And even if that were true, how do you know the calls in 2004 weren't correct?

CPMDatson
CPMDatson

The eagles took a 24-23 lead on the back of a 40 yard pass interference call. Seriously how lackadaisical are the writers and editors of SI? Quality has suffered last few years.

George
George

I hate chicken calls and the way they disrupt the game as much as anyone.   

But you can't let dbs literally mug receivers that way some were this weekend.   It that's the case, hell - Even an old phart like me can play db 

- I'll simply take a few basic wrestling & judo classes, and simply line up across and take down my opposing receiver at the line of scrimmage, and teabag him / sit on his helmet for 5 seconds.  Solved!   :D


There has to be a limit to how much holding and hand-fighting a db can do.  And I'm willing to bet Goodell feels the same way.   Run your idea by him, Greg - I'm sure he'll love it.


:D

MikeBailey
MikeBailey

Referee's have to call plays the same from the first play of pre-season to the last play of the Super Bowl! Consistency is what all sports want in officiating. To stop calling penalties in the playoffs that you would normally call in the regular season is as stupid as playing the Super Bowl cold weather!

mike202
mike202

I can't wait to hear from the whiners in San Francisco about all of this. 



unitcaptain11
unitcaptain11

This trend will change in Seattle on Saturday.  There is no way the refs will let the Seahawks mug the Saints WRs, despite the lack of PI calls so far in the playoffs.  The NFLs most penalized team will continue to draw flags in the playoffs.  Drew Brees is too important to the NFL.

Hawaii007
Hawaii007

@ScottM.Wright I totally agree, being happy about less penalties being called is rewarding cheating.

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@ScottM.Wright when the ref's are being bias and one sided it ruins the game if they are not calling it on both sides then I say ya let them not call it if they are calling it then call it on both sides do not dictate who is going to win it ruins the game

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@KristopherLohmuller I thought that game was un bias tell the last Quarter of the game in which the ref's demonstrated their ability to help a team win they had forty whiners stopped then got a ticky tack PI call that hadn't been called on either side the entire game up until it helped the 9ers out other then that the rest of the games were pretty good as for the zebras staying out of the game and not deciding who was going to win

johnvas49
johnvas49

@KristopherLohmuller Your fooling yourself if you think the non-calls were even.  I don't recall any non-calls against the Packers in the end-zone while there were two against Crabtree in the first quarter alone.  The game has a different complexion if it's 14-0 instead of 6-0, as the Packers probably begin to pass more often and the Niners pass rushers probably get a better jump to get after Rodgers for the rest of the game...

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@thomasoverley nothing worse then seeing the refs be bias and one sided I seen many PI's that were not called in the games both ways so I agree with this guy stay out of the game let the players decide since they seem to be un able to call it both ways it seemed to me that the WR would throw their hands up and cry for a flag even when there was no contact if the refs call it one way then they need to call it the same way on both sides of the ball not just one sided 

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@DavidMcKinney it is better that they let the players decide the out come of a game then to decide it themselves like they have done so often when they cal it one sided it is the ref's who are cheating if they are calling it both ways then by all means call it both ways or dont' call it both ways and let the better team show who they are 

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@vincedarnone hey if they are not calling it both ways leave it alone it's when they call them one sided that it ruins the integrity of the game which I seen way to much during the regular season 

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@#31DShell ya I will believe it when I see it as a Hawks fan to see the ref's be unbiased for a complete game would be something crazy I would never expect to see just figure the Hawks have to beat the team they play and the ref's which has been the case but to see them officiate a game both ways and be fair about it and un bias I'd be tickled pink had they been that way in the 9ers game and the AZ game the end would have been different 

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@reed seems to me they showed up in the fourth Quarter for your whiners team and helped them get past the packers

tmadz
tmadz

@AllThingsConsidered I was screaming that there was no call on the Packers on the  4th and 2 conversion. Rodgers was wrapped up between two players and the center really tackled and ripped off the defender.  How can you not make that call? I understand if it was a simple holding call, butthis was really egregious. At that point I thought the league had given a mandate to perpetuate the Packer legend.


There were a couple of offsetting pass interference calls that weren't called, but ther were no where near as obvious and happened against both teams. The difference is letting the defense finally play defense instead of giving whiny QB's and WR's carte blanche to determine the outcome of the game.

onyxdragon007
onyxdragon007

@DeCato253Seattle dbs hold on every play and get away with it more than not because officials don't want to slow the game down too much. The nickname has nothing to do with the penalties they get. I hate it that the NFL restricts the defense so much but if they are going to do it, call it consistently. If they do that, then yes, Seattle's defense should see a flag every play until they stop mugging pass catchers MORE than other teams.

Hawaii007
Hawaii007

@unitcaptain11 regardless on whether or not the NFL has a conspiracy to protect Brees, why wouldn't you expect the trend to have more penalties if the most-penalized team in the NFL is the one that is playing?  Wouldn't it be more of a conspiracy if the most-penalized team in the NFL suddenly isn't penalized even though they are facing some top-notch competition?

onyxdragon007
onyxdragon007

@unitcaptain11That is because Seattle holds/mugs receivers every play. They know the refs won't call every PI so they do it all the time and mostly get away with it. It is only logical that they are the most penalized team.

Hawaii007
Hawaii007

@PaulMaggard @DavidMcKinney Your diatribe about officiating bias is irrelevant to the discussion on whether or not this article makes a good point that letting illegal activity go is good or bad.  No one in their right mind thinks that corrupt officials are a good thing for the sport.  If you are so afraid that corruption/bias will enter into the equation with officials making calls, then the only way to ensure that does not happen is to remove all rules and remove the need for officials period.

Hawaii007
Hawaii007

@PaulMaggard @#31DShell why am I not surprised you are a Seahawks fan and you are strongly advocating non-calls.  Your defensive backfield prides itself on being "physical" and notoriously ride receivers up the sideline, which is what they should/have to do since that is their advantage by being bigger than the traditional DB but the trade off is being slower so the way to keep up with the receivers is to keep on placing a hand on them, even beyond the 5 yards which is illegal.  And don't claim that things even out because your opposition can do the same  First, your receivers are not exactly putting the fear of god in people and you are a run-first team, and second, being 5'10, selling illegal contact is a lot easier than the 6'2+ receivers.

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@tmadz @AllThingsConsidered oh please the game was the same on both sides of the ball your whiners defense was doing just as much PI and holding on defense as the packers were and they were doing just as much holding on the offense as the packers were doing the only reason you won was because the ref's started tossing the flags in favor of the whiners in the last half of the fourth quarter 

Hawaii007
Hawaii007

@onyxdragon007 @DeCato253 I totally agree.  What official wants to blow the whistle every down even if a penalty happens.  For Seattle, it is worth it, you might get called initially once or twice, but the 10 yards cost is worth it once the officials get tired of stopping the game and if it eventually leads to interceptions or "shutting down" the passing game.

johnvas49
johnvas49

@onyxdragon007 @unitcaptain11 Yep...  Seahawks hold on pretty much every play, but Refs only call it around 25% of the time (probably less).  It's a lot easier to stay with a receiver when you can hold onto his jersey while running down the field.  So, it's a good strategy as long as the refs don't want to slow the game down too much by calling holding or PI all the time. 


Maybe if the refs start calling it at least half the time, the Hawks will need to change their tactics.

Newsletter