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Fantasy football fueling NFL’s penalty emphasis

Under the NFL’s hands-off policy for defenders, there will be a lot of hands raised in the end zone.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Yellow is the new black in the National Football League. It’s the must-have color of the preseason.

The NFL has pledged allegiance to the flags and to one side of the football with its renewed emphasis on penalties for defensive holding and illegal contact. Defense hasn’t been outlawed, but it might as well be.

The point of emphasizing the rules for illegal contact beyond 5 yards and defensive holding is more points. The NFL can’t get enough of them on its scoreboards and neither can the millions of people who devote time to fantasy football.

With each over-officious, halting preseason game played with the aim of letting receivers run wild and free, we are witnessing the nexus between fantasy football and actual football. Fueling fantasy football, which has a heavy reliance on the stats of offensive players, has become the new reality in the NFL.


That’s why we get games that feature a United Nations-worthy display of flags, such as last Friday’s contest between the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans. The game had 32 accepted penalties. Eight more were declined. That’s 40 flags, which should be a giant red flag for the league.

The point of playing rules in any game from Scrabble to cricket is to foster an environment of fairness and equity, to level the playing field. But that’s not what the NFL is doing with its preseason parade of penalties. It’s tilting an already slanted playing field more toward passing pyrotechnics and Red Zone channel updates.

The question is who exactly was clamoring for a crackdown on scofflaw defensive backs after the 2013 season saw NFL games average 46.8 points per game, the highest in league history?

Rule changes are normally necessitated by an imbalance in the game, a natural evolution that calls for a correction.


Baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound by 5 inches after the offensively anemic 1968 season. That year, just five qualified players in the American League hit above .280 and Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average.

In 2001, the NBA introduced the defensive three-second rule to prevent defenses from bivouacking in the paint and turning drives to the hoop into human pinball. The NHL rendered the red line moot to offset neutral-zone-clogging tactics.

But the NFL is simply engaging in offensive gluttony. Points per game have risen every season since 2010. Eleven of 32 teams topped 400 points last season, including the Denver Broncos, who set an NFL record with 606. In each of the last four seasons, the NFL has set a record for total points, going from 11,283 in 2010 to 11,985 last season.

For four straight seasons, the NFL has set a record for net passing yards per game. Last season, it surged to 471.2. Despite all of the alleged clutching and grabbing that needed to be expunged from the game, and passers surpassed 800 touchdown passes in a season (804) for the first time in league history.

If only commercial air travel were as convenient and free of obstacles as air travel has become in the NFL. I can think of a few airlines that could use some tips from the NFL.

For those who assume the Draconian application of the rules will fade once the regular season starts, think again.

“We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts,” NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told Peter King of The MMQB.com.


The league said its competition committee recommended the points of emphasis. The feeling was officials had become too lax.

Maybe they just got mesmerized by all the spinning footballs buzzing over their heads, or fatigued from chasing receivers downfield.

According to the NFL, there were 226 defensive holding calls last season.

That’s 25 more than were called in 2004, when former Colts president Bill Polian famously spearheaded a charge for stricter interpretation of the pass defense rules in response to the Patriots.

Illegal contact calls have dipped from 191 in 2004 to just 52 last year.

There are certain rule changes — like the defenseless receiver — that the NFL has been forced to make to maintain the long-term viability of its business and show that it is taking the concussion issue seriously.

Swapping defensive integrity for player safety is a deal I would make every time.

But the passing game points of emphasis have nothing to do with player safety, unless that player safety is making sure more passers and wide receivers remain safely on fantasy teams.

Paradoxically, the attempt to make the games more entertaining has made them less so in the preseason.

The surfeit of penalty flags has bogged down the games and made you wonder whether Red Sox chairman Tom Werner has any ideas to clean up the NFL’s pace of play.


Games like the Patriots’ flag-filled 42-35 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday feel like an interminable Red Sox-Yankees struggle. The football game featured 21 accepted penalties, 28 overall.

In an officiating video released to the media last Friday, Blandino said that through the first 17 preseason games, the time of the game had not changed significantly. It was 2 hours, 58 minutes, and 29 seconds last season. This year, it was 2:59.39. The Patriots-Eagles game clocked in at 3:11. Saints-Titans was 3:19.

The reality is that it doesn’t matter if the games aren’t longer. If they feel longer or more tedious, then the NFL has a problem.

The NFL had better be careful that it doesn’t harm the golden goose with extended games and artificially inflated scores.

Do that and you’ll turn Mark Cuban, who hypothesized that the league is 10 years away from imploding, into a seer.

The NFL’s fantasy game could turn out to be a nightmare to watch.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.