Inside Slant: Penalties begin to regulate

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
9:30
AM ET
An important development occurred in the final week of the NFL preseason: Calls for illegal contact and defensive holding -- two key points of emphasis in 2014 -- dropped significantly Thursday night.

The league still finished the preseason with a total of 271 calls (accepted or declined) for those two penalties, nearly five times the total for the 2013 preseason -- and almost matching the total for the entire 2013 regular season. Details are in the chart, provided by ESPN Stats & Information.

Earlier this summer, the NFL acknowledged it planned to use the 2014 preseason as a platform for rewiring techniques among pass defenders. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said the league wanted to accomplish two goals: Eradicate contact with eligible receivers after 5 yards and eliminate the grabbing of jerseys downfield. As penalty totals skyrocketed, Blandino made clear that he expected them to regulate as everyone adjusted to new expectations.

Hopefully, we saw the beginning of that normalization Thursday night. In 16 games, officials called a total of 41 penalties (accepted or declined) for illegal contact or defensive holding. That works out to a rate of about 1.28 per game. In the first 49 games of the preseason, that rate was 4.69 per game.

You might ask why the NFL went through this process if it planned all along to pull back when the regular season arrived. First, I don't think we can say for certain that the pullback has occurred. The final preseason game is hardly a template, given the number of backups playing and the desire to keep the clock moving and prevent injuries.

Second, players and coaches aren't the only people who needed to adjust. I think it's fair to say that officials might have overreacted a bit to their initial instructions and, simply, thrown too many flags over the first three weeks.

I would expect to see illegal contact and defensive holding called more often in the 2014 regular season than it was in 2013. But in all likelihood, those calls will be made closer to the rate of Thursday night than over the first three weeks of the preseason.

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