The flags kept flying at an alarming rate in Week 2 of the NFL preseason.
Will they dry up by the time the regular season starts in September? There are conflicting messages coming from the NFL as it seeks to give more breathing room to receivers this year.
• Example 1. Referee John Parry in Patriots camp last week: “By Week 1 of the regular season, I am sure we will all have forgotten this.”
• Example 2. NFL officiating boss Dean Blandino, to Sports Illustrated Monday: “We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts . . . The way the game’s being officiated now is the way it’s going to be officiated when the season begins.”
So what gives?
There were 21 accepted penalties in the Patriots’ win over the Eagles on Friday, after there were 19 in their opening game. Across the league, ESPN’s research showed that there has been an average of 23.4 penalties per game this preseason.
Last year, there was an average of 12.7 penalties enforced per game.
If Blandino’s forecast proves true, there will surely be a significant slowdown in the pace of games once the regular season starts.
The focus of the increase in penalties is on defensive backs. The league is more strictly enforcing the rule against contact with receivers outside of the 5-yard bump zone off the line of scrimmage.
Defensive backs are learning the hard way that contact downfield — something Blandino said was “underofficiated last year” — will not be tolerated. But he and Parry both seem confident that penalties will drop in the regular season as players become accustomed to the stricter enforcement of the rules.
Coaches will play a big role in this, training players not to cross that figurative yellow line that would result in a flag. Saints coach Sean Payton said as much after his team drew 22 penalties in Saturday’s win over the Titans.
“Most of the ones I saw were good calls,” said Payton. “So this isn’t about a crew calling a lot of penalties, this is about something I have to do a better job with.”
The winnowing of rosters over the next two weeks should help. The smartest, most talented players will end up on the final rosters. And, with more than three weeks left until the regular season begins, coaches will be able to train those smart, talented players on best practices that won’t draw attention from officials.
“Coaches adjust, and players adjust,” Blandino told SI. “They have to, and they know it.”
It’s preseason for officials and players alike, and Parry said this is an annual exercise that is just sorting itself out.
“Players will get into a rhythm of what we are focusing on and what we are calling, officials will get better at it,” he said.
There will probably be a meeting point somewhere between the hard line that Blandino has drawn and the unhappiness of the players and coaches. Defensive backs will adapt and learn just how far they can bend the rules before an official reacts.
But there will be flags. Just not at the rate of 23 a game.
Graham learns new rule the hard way
It was no secret the NFL had Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in mind this offseason when it banned players from using the goalpost as a prop in touchdown celebrations. That meant an end to Graham’s signature dunk over the crossbar.
Or did it?
Graham drew flags — and a scolding from Payton — Friday night when he twice dunked the ball between the uprights following touchdowns. The ensuing 15-yard penalties didn’t hamper the Saints too much in their 31-24 win over the Titans, but on Sunday Graham admitted he was wrong and vowed to stop — even if he’s unhappy about it.
“I’m not hurting anybody,” Graham told reporters of his celebration routine.
Payton told Graham that whether he likes the rules or not, he has to abide by them.
“The rule [is] unfortunate because I just love the game,” he said. “I have a lot of passion for the game. And when I go out there on Sunday, it’s fun for me. And I feel like a little kid out there. And sometimes I act like it.”
Extra points test comes to an end
Five more kickers fell victim to the NFL’s test to make extra point attempts more difficult this weekend. Heading into Monday night’s Cleveland-Washington Week 2 finale, kickers were 69 of 74 on the 33-yard attempts after missing three of 54 attempts last weekend.
One of the misses was by Lions kicker (and Boston College product) Nate Freese in the first quarter of Friday’s game at Oakland. (Freese, fighting for a job, also added a 55-yard field goal.) His miss loomed large when the Raiders scored a game-tying touchdown with 6 seconds left — and then booted the game-winning extra point.
Minnesota’s Blair Walsh also missed an extra point in what could have been a costly situation. The Vikings, having taken a 30-28 lead in the final minute on a touchdown, needed the extra point to guard against Arizona potentially winning on a walkoff field goal. Arizona didn’t get the kickoff return it needed to set up such a try, otherwise Walsh’s gaffe would have been magnified.
The new extra point rules end after the second week of preseason games, as NFL officials will review the data. What they’ll find is that the experiment changed the point-after attempt from a nearly automatic play to one that is just slightly less automatic: eight misses out of 128 attempts is a 93.7 percent conversion rate.
But several of the misses have been by kickers who won’t likely be on regular-season rosters. So in the regular season, that conversion rate would likely rise.
The competition committee will likely consider how to move forward in the offseason.
Falcons suffer a tough loss
Fortifying the line in front of Matt Ryan was an important task for the Falcons in the offseason. It’s why they selected tackle Jake Matthews in the first round, expecting to bookend him with Sam Baker. But Baker suffered a torn patellar tendon in Saturday’s 32-7 loss to the Falcons. That could lead to Matthews moving to the left to protect Ryan’s blind side. And it will leave the Falcons searching for new ways to improve their pass protection, which was porous last season when Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times.
Bridgewater impressive for Vikings
Teddy Bridgewater led the Vikings on a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute of Minnesota’s 30-28 win over the Cardinals on Saturday. Bridgewater was calm and poised and moved the drive with a 37-yard strike to Rodney Smith. He finished 16 for 20 for 177 yards and two TD passes. A solid effort, but it still may not move him forward much in the fight to be the starting quarterback. Veteran Matt Cassel was even more polished in the first half. But Bridgewater’s progress likely makes the Vikings want to see what he can do against a first-team defense.
Bortles forcing Jaguars to reconsider
Blake Bortles again was impressive in the Jaguars’ 20-19 loss to the Bears back on Thursday. Moreso than the numbers (11 for 17 for 160 yards), Bortles is making smart choices and looks better than the clipboard-holding redshirt freshman the Jaguars expected he would be. So coach Gus Bradley said Bortles earned the right to play a quarter with the first unit. Could that lead to Bradley reconsidering his plan to have Bortles sit and learn behind Chad Henne? Don’t count on it, at least at the start of the season. Jacksonville is still stung by how quickly 2011 first-round Blaine Gabbert flamed out after being inserted as a starter in his rookie season.
• Hakeem Nicks looked great for the Colts in a tune-up against his old Giants teammates Saturday. Nicks caught five passes for 53 yards and had a good rapport with QB Andrew Luck. Nicks is coming off back-to-back down years for the Giants. But if he can find the mode that made him a 1,000-yard receiver in 2010 and 2011, he could be a menacing weapon for Luck alongside Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton.
• It’s too early to panic, but the Giants’ transition to new coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense is not going well. Eli Manning, in three games, is just 7 of 16 for 49 yards. “It wasn’t impressive at all,” coach Tom Coughlin said of the first-team offense’s effort against the Colts. “We didn’t get a whole lot done. There’s no production.”
• Likewise, the first-team offense in Buffalo has been slow to develop. E.J. Manuel has yet to lead a touchdown drive. (He couldn’t convert on two fourth-and-short opportunities in Steelers territory Saturday.) Also, top draft pick Sammy Watkins left the loss at Pittsburgh with an injury that turned out to be bruised ribs. It does not appear to be a serious injury, though.
• When the Steelers used a first-round draft pick on Ryan Shazier, he fit the mold of someone who could become the next great Pittsburgh linebacker. And he played just that part in his preseason debut against the Bills. Shazier intercepted a Manuel pass and was generally disruptive to the Bills. Said fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons: “He did an awesome job.”
• Jadeveon Clowney helped the Texans dim memories of their awful opening-weekend loss to the Cardinals. Clowney, the top overall pick, found his way into the Falcons’ offensive backfield multiple times on Saturday and gave teams a scary look at what they will have to deal with when he’s teamed with J.J. Watt in the regular season.
• Michael Sam recorded his first sack in a Rams uniform when he flattened Matt Flynn in a 21-7 loss to the Packers. Sam remains on the bubble, but plays like that can help him stick around.
• Keep an eye on Justin Hunter, the Titans receiver entering his second season. He had two touchdowns on four catches for 111 yards in Friday’s loss to the Saints. Hunter has the tools, but is undisciplined. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he’s hopeful the 34th overall pick in 2013 now has the “right mind-set” to accept the coaching that can make him an impact player.
• Maybe the 49ers want the season opener Sept. 14 to be the real party. Because it’s hard to know how they could put forth such a dismal effort in their first game at new Levi’s Stadium, a 34-0 loss to the Broncos. “We’ve got to work to do, there’s no doubt about it,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter @leahysean