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ben volin | on football

Penalty calls are getting offensive

FOXBOROUGH — If nothing else, the NFL knows how to stage a good television product. High-definition cameras, the yellow first-down line, Red Zone Channel, in-game officiating analysis, and the fantasy stat crawl are just some of the recent innovations that enhance the viewing experience and make the NFL the best TV sport in North America.

The NFL, though, has gone too far this time. The madness has to stop.

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In its never-ending quest for more offense (and fantasy football stats), the NFL told its officials to call defensive penalties more tightly this season.

The result, though, was the travesty of a football game played out by the Patriots and Eagles at Gillette Stadium.

There were more flags on the field Friday night than at the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics. In all, the Patriots and Eagles were called for 28 penalties, with 21 accepted.

For context, the Patriots and their opponents were flagged an average of 12.93 times per game last season. The Patriots and Eagles almost reached that number in the first quarter Friday night, drawing 11 penalty flags.

Friday night’s game wasn’t an anomaly, but part of a troubling trend this exhibition season. The Patriots’ first game, against Washington, had 23 penalties (19 accepted). The Seahawks-Broncos game last week had 25 penalties. The Saints and Titans combined had 32 penalties accepted on Friday night.

Eagles cornerback Curtis Marsh looked like he had given up trying to understand the rules after being flagged once for pass interference and once for holding against the Patriots. He said after the game he agreed with both calls, but said the refs were too inconsistent overall. Marsh gave up three touchdowns Friday night.

“Sometimes it seems like it’s legal, and then sometimes it’s really enforced, especially with the illegal contact after 5 yards,” Marsh said. “There seems to be a gray area in there. But I think it will calm down. They can’t throw a flag on every play.”

It seems like they’re trying.

Referee John Parry was in Foxborough this week to officiate the Patriots-Eagles joint practices and Friday night’s game. He assured the media at a press conference that the flags won’t fly as frequently in the regular season.

“The message will be sent that this is a point of emphasis and players will adapt, coaches will adapt, officials will adapt, get on the same page [for] Week 1,” Parry said. “I don’t think you’ll see a big difference in the football game. And by Week 1 of the regular season, I am sure we will all have forgotten this. Players will get into a rhythm of what we are focusing on and what we are calling.”

Sounds great, but the first two weeks of the exhibition season should have NFL fans worried that games this year will be over-officiated. The games won’t be decided by the better team, but the team that is better at drawing penalties. The Patriots were plus-43 in this regard last year, so maybe that’s not a bad thing for the local team. But it’s terrible for fans of professional football.

“Whoever ends up being the most disciplined team in this league is going to win,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “You don’t have to agree with the speed limit, but if the cop’s out there with a speed gun, you better take your foot off the gas or he’s going to pull you over. That’s the bottom line.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick had words with an official during Friday’s preseason game against the Eagles.

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

Patriots coach Bill Belichick had words with an official during Friday’s preseason game against the Eagles.

The NFL has made its point, all right. It proved it can make a great sport boring, and turn off casual and diehard fans alike.

“It’s an offensive game, and we want receivers to be able to run a free route,” Parry explained.

He’s half-right — the NFL is just plain offensive with all of these penalty flags on the ground.

Enough is enough. Fans want offense, but they don’t want whatever it is you call Friday night’s game — certainly not football.

The game dragged on and had no rhythm. The first quarter took 50 minutes, and the first half an hour and 45 minutes. Nothing will kill interest and TV ratings faster than turning this game into the National Flag League.

In the first weekend of the exhibition season, officials called 27 illegal contact penalties, compared with just 37 during the entire 2013 regular season. There were also 53 defensive holding calls last week, compared with 171 all of last season.

On the Patriots’ second drive of the game, officials threw seven penalty flags in 13 plays. Add in a challenge on the touchdown, and the game came to a complete halt before fans had even settled into their seats.

Even Bill Belichick couldn’t escape the wrath of the officials. The NFL has two points of emphasis this year — calling defensive penalties tighter, and promoting good sportsmanship on the field. Not sure what Belichick said to Parry on the field, but he probably wasn’t too happy that Parry ruled an impressive sideline catch by Julian Edelman incomplete (don’t fret, there was a flag for pass interference on the play). But screaming at the referee isn’t very sportsmanlike, so Belichick joined the party and got himself a 15-yard penalty.

The stands were only about half full by the end of the third quarter Friday night. By that point, the game was 2 hours, 45 minutes old and had seen 21 penalties called.

If the NFL keeps calling penalties like this, the fans might not come back.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.
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