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Are you ready for some . . . flags to fly in Patriots’ exhibition opener?

“Frankly in preseason we may throw [a flag] and then go back and say, no, this is really not what we want,” referee Brad Allen said.James Kenney/AP

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FOXBOROUGH — Please, don’t shoot the messenger, but get ready for penalty flags to fly Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots’ exhibition opener (vs. the Washington Redskins, at 7:30 p.m.) is almost sure to be a flag-fest, the field littered like a Coldplay lyric: all yellow.

“In the preseason we want to err on the side of putting the flag on the ground and then evaluating whether or not it’s correct,” referee Brad Allen said Wednesday. “We want to be right by the time we get to the season.”



No one likes the idea of suffering through stoppages and reviews during exhibition games in which the outcome doesn’t matter, but this might be necessary medicine.

Related: What you need to know about the NFL’s new helmet rule

The NFL instituted a variety of rule changes during the offseason, most notably one that’s being referred to as the new helmet rule, and though the league and officials try to promote confidence and clarity, the reality is that no one knows how all of this is going to work out until the games begin.

“We went over the rule with some clarification and understanding, but until you get out there and play and see what’s called, what’s not called, I think it’ll still be an adjustment for guys,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.

“Hopefully by the time we get to the season guys are just playing.”

The helmet rule has generated the most conversation because it has the potential to alter how players try to make plays. The catch rule also was modified to eliminate the requirement that a receiver maintain possession of the ball while going to the ground, but that changes the outcome of certain plays, not how they’re being made. Receivers always are trying to maintain possession, it’s just that that doesn’t happen on every play that looks like it should be a catch, and that won’t matter anymore.


Related: The Patriots think they have a good grasp on the new helmet rule

The helmet rule, along with rule changes on kickoffs, is different. The helmet rule states that “it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent” regardless of whether that contact meets the opponent’s helmet, head, neck, or any other area of the body. The penalty is 15 yards and, if the violator is a defensive player, an automatic first down.

A player in violation also can be ejected if he “lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet,” has an “unobstructed path to his opponent,” or makes contact that was “clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options.”

Longtime referee Clete Blakeman was in Foxborough on Monday explaining the rules to players. Allen said that when he visited training camps, players weren’t noticeably pleased or upset by the rule but were asking lots of questions about how they could keep playing at a high level while complying with it.

Allen said he thinks lots of those questions have been answered, but some can’t be until games have been played.

It remains to be seen how the helmet rule will be officiated in the trenches. The rule applies everywhere, though it will be easier to officiate and spot in space. Allen said that his crew will use the exhibition season in part to figure out where they should set up in order to get a good view of close line play.


Related: Deatrich Wise’s next move? Opposing quarterbacks

It’s also unclear how the rule will be called when it comes to certain movements that could be interpreted either as initiating contact, which is a foul, or as bracing for contact, which isn’t.

“Up until now we haven’t seen these plays. The players haven’t experienced this rule,” Allen said. “We’re going to have to get a library, and frankly in preseason we may throw [a flag] and then go back and say, no, this is really not what we want.”

Referees don’t always say so explicitly that they call things differently in the exhibition season than during the regular season, but McCourty said that players have come to expect it.

“They try to get guys used to it,” McCourty said. “But one thing we always talk about here is you have to play the game how it’s being officiated that day. If one call has been called three times you can’t go out there and keep doing the same thing. You’ve got to always pay attention.”

Ultimately, the helmet rule is about player safety and eliminating dangerous hits in which the head, neck, and spine are aligned in a linear position. If it works as intended, smoothing out the kinks will be worth the effort. Luckily, McCourty said, the Patriots tend to easily adjust to new rules because the coaching staff prioritizes it.


“Our coaches always do a good job,” McCourty said. “I’m sure we’ll see clips throughout the league like this is acceptable, this isn’t, so we’ll see how that kind of shakes out.”

It sounds as if they’ll have plenty of material to review.

Related: Wednesday’s practice report: Tom Brady’s workload creeps up

Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.