A subtle change to the NFL rulebook resulted in an 822 percent increase in illegal contact penalties through three weeks of the preseason.
Now the key question is not whether those calls will continue to rise in the regular season, because NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino is sure they will. He also says that's a good thing.
"We don't think this is a mistake at all," Blandino said. "It's going to provide more consistent officiating, and ultimately that's what everyone wants."
What fans, coaches and defenders want to know is: Just how often will flags fly when games count next week? Just how much will cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers need to keep their hands to themselves?
"When you have world-class athletes out there running routes, it's kind of hard not to put your hand on them," Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "You have to practice the new technique and get away with what we can."
Heading into Thursday's final exhibition games, the jumps from the 2013 preseason for three particular penalties were striking:
— 83 for illegal contact, up from nine;
— 137 for defensive holding, up from 28;
— 99 for illegal use of hands, up from 22.
"The officials," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said, "are trying to make a point."
In last season's "Official Playing Rules of the National Football League," Rule 8, Section 4, Article 3 states: "If the receiver attempts to evade the defender, the defender cannot initiate contact that redirects, restricts, or impedes the receiver in any way."
New wording for 2014 formulated by coaches and team representatives on the competition committee says "a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him."
"It now takes away any notion of whether that contact created an advantage for the defense or a disadvantage for the receiver," said Mike Pereira, Blandino's predecessor in charge of officials. "So it basically is just about 'contact' or 'no contact.'"
During the NFL's annual officiating clinic in July, Blandino discussed an "emphasis" on illegal contact and said: "(If) it's five plays in a row, call it five plays in a row."
Blandino told the league's nearly 120 game officials that defensive holding also would be a "big point of emphasis."
Pereira recalled a similar "emphasis" in 2004. Illegal contact calls went from 76 the previous season to 190, according to STATS.
"I understood it at the time, because defense was starting to dominate in the early 2000s, and so it was a way to kind of balance the ledger a bit," Pereira said. "You can't say it's the same thing here."
Not at all. Last season's games averaged 46.8 points, breaking a record that stood since 1948, along with 697 total net yards and 471.2 net passing yards — also all-time highs.
While defensive holding flags already were increasing — from 132 in 2009, to 222 in 2013 — illegal contact trended down. Only 54 were called last season, down from 81 in 2012, and from 130 in 2009.
"The feeling was, the last couple of years, this area has been under-officiated. There's been a lot of gray area," Blandino said. "The number of fouls has been down, and I don't think anybody's uncomfortable with getting more to those kind of historic levels."
Some wonder if this is a way to further inflate the offensive stats that fuel fantasy football. Of course, receivers and quarterbacks won't get credit for penalty yardage.
Some players insist it's a reaction to the success of Super Bowl champion Seattle's physical "Legion of Boom" secondary ("They got their ring, they did it their way, and we've got to all pay the consequences," Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall said). Some say it's an attempt to help Peyton Manning, whose Broncos were dominated by the Seahawks in the title game.
"I'm sure that perception is out there. This isn't about one particular team," Blandino said. "It's not about helping the offense."
Noting that offensive pass interference calls are up this preseason (from 17 to 43 through three weeks), he added: "We don't want the offense to try to think that this is a ticket to be able to try to draw fouls."
In the first 1 1/2 quarters of an exhibition game between Washington and Cleveland, there were eight penalties called for illegal contact, defensive holding or offensive pass interference. Two were on Browns cornerback Joe Haden, matched up against receiver DeSean Jackson.
In training camp, Haden's Browns had cornerbacks and safeties wear small boxing gloves — like those in mixed martial arts — to try to avoid clutching receivers' jerseys.
"I was talking to DeSean, and he was like, 'These are bad calls,'" Haden said. "He was saying I wasn't holding him."
Not surprisingly, Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was not bothered by the extra flags that night.
"Please, Jesus, keep calling 'em," Griffin said, "because it definitely helps us as an offense."
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Seattle; Stephen Hawkins in Irving, Texas; Brett Martel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; Dave Skretta in St. Joseph, Missouri; Howard Ulman in Foxborough, Massachusetts; Joseph White in Richmond, Virginia; and Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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