Devin McCourty had hardly reached the end zone with an interception return before the outrage ensued from the San Diego Chargers.
Brandon Browner delivered a bone-crunching hit to tight end Ladarius Green that knocked the ball loose and into the hands of McCourty, but the touchdown was negated because Browner was penalized for unnecessary roughness, a hit to the head of a defenseless receiver.
Browner was not fined, but the hit has served as a microcosm for a season in which the Patriots have been called for 110 penalties through Week 15, which ranks fifth in the NFL, according to nflpenalties.com.
The Patriots only were called for 75 penalties last season — the fourth-least in the NFL — and 58 penalties through Week 15.
With the league emphasizing defensive holding and pass interference calls this season, the addition of a physical corner such as Browner has resulted in the Patriots being flagged at a dizzying rate.
Browner leads the team with 15 penalties (13 accepted), including five pass interference calls and four holding penalties.
Former NFL official Jim Daopoulos, who has 11 years of on-field experience and served 12 years as the league’s supervisor of officials, said the calls aren’t always correct.
“I thought [Browner] did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Daopoulos said of the hit against the Chargers.
“They’re going to get called for those fouls, even though they’re not fouls. They’re right on the borderline, but they’re the ones the officials are forced to call because of the safety factor. But they’re playing within the rules and unfortunately sometimes they get called for penalties that aren’t penalties.”
The increase in penalties isn’t specific to the Patriots or a player; penalty numbers are up throughout the league.
Through Week 15, 3,007 penalties have been called. At that same point last season, those numbers were 2,796.
In 2013, defensive holding was called 181 times — and that number already has been eclipsed through Week 15 this season (197).
Surprisingly, defensive pass interference, called 184 times through Week 15, is down from last season, when it was 205 through Week 15, and the season total was 247.
Yet more than ever, it seems as if receivers are calling for a flag after every incomplete pass.
Defensive pass interference calls are nearly double the offensive pass interference penalties (93), although offensive pass interference calls have increased since 2013.
Last season, offensive PI only was called a total of 66 times — 27 fewer than it has been called this season.
“These receivers and these defensive backs are fantastic athletes and they play right on the edge,” said Daopoulos, who officiated his last season in 2000 and is now a rules analyst on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
“What you do as an official is look for an advantage and disadvantage, and the officials are charged by the Competition Committee and by the league, they want these receivers to run free and have an opportunity to catch the ball.
“The defenders are put at a disadvantage in that situation so they better tighten up without any of that contact. I know it’s tough for fans and every time there’s an incompleted pass everybody is looking for a flag, and that’s just the nature of what’s going on because officials are being told to call them tight. It was a little bit different when I was on the field, we let them play a little.”
On Tuesday’s conference call, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “Penalties have been an issue for us all year as a team.
“We’ve had a lot of penalties, more than we want — way more than we want. We’re trying to decrease that number and the frequency. [We’re] certainly not there yet, but we continue to make it a priority and address it and work to reduce them.
“That goes for everybody. It’s everybody’s responsibility to play penalty free in their area, whether it’s the coaches on play-calling and substitution and things like that, or whether it’s the individual players based on their techniques and whatever the situation is that they’re in.”
There doesn’t seem to be correlation between a team’s success and the how often they are penalized.
Last season, the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks led the league with 152 penalties. The Seahawks (10-4) are first again this season with 117. Despite the Patriots’ penalty problems, they’re 11-3 and atop the AFC.
“I think it’s just a coincidence,” said Daopoulos. “The Patriots are a very well-coached team, they know what they can play, what they can do, and what they can get away with and they play right to the edge of the rule.
“Sometimes, they get called for penalties and they’re incorrect. They’re a tough, aggressive team, as were the Seahawks. They get after it and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. They play within the rules, but sometimes they get flagged and they shouldn’t be getting flagged.”
Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Browner don’t plan to change their style of play.
“I feel like we’re gonna continue to play physical,” Revis said after last Sunday’s victory over the Dolphins. “That’s just what it is. We’re gonna continue to try to play within the rules. But at the same time, you gotta give credit to [Browner] for just staying focused and playing his game and doing his assignment and forgetting about those flags early on and just continuing to play.”
Most importantly, Daopoulos put to rest the notion that some penalties are reputation-based.
“I can tell you unequivocally, we as officials go out on the field and are just watching the game,” Daopoulos said. “We’re not saying is that Browner? Is that some other player? You don’t go in there with a mind-set. Some people ask if the league asks me to tighten up on this team.
“In my 25-plus years, never, ever has anybody said we better tighten up on this team or keep an eye on these players. That’s just not the way we do it. You don’t want to isolate that player. You try to be fair and you’re not going out there with a predisposition.”