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Expect more illegal contact calls from refs this NFL season

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It is bad enough how bold the league is about its financial goals. The NFL wants to bring in $25 billion in revenue by 2027. It has been two years since the start of the pandemic, and the league generated $11 billion per Sportico. That number includes no local revenue dollars.

In the haste to make that $25 billion goal, the NFL has always put its grubby paws on the game too often. After the NFL finally eased its stance on touchdown celebrations — and fans have shown they appreciate it — last season taunting was a point of emphasis. Obviously, defensive players shouldn’t squat crotch first over the facemask of a downed player. Disrespect like that is asking for a brawl, but that doesn’t mean referees need to ruin a rookie quarterback’s best performance of the season with a taunting penalty on a reserve defensive end who celebrated a critical third-down sack with a martial arts kick directed at no one.

The league does need rules, and that includes defensive contact with pass catchers. Football would be no fun if defensive backs are allowed to yank wide receivers down from behind while in mid-route. A 25-22 game would be the treat of the year. That’s not the way to sell a product, and the NFL has been emphasizing the rules in the passing game since a Peyton Manning loss in the playoffs to the New England Patriots in the early aughts.

The league placed an emphasis on contact between defenders and pass catchers after the 2004 AFC Championship Game edition of the Manning-Brady Bowl. The Indianapolis Colts complained that the Patriots defense was mauling pass catchers and referees were instructed to call the five-yard chuck rule — contact made by defensive backs to pass catchers more than five yards down the field while the quarterback is still in the pocket — more consistently.

In 2022, nearly 20 years after that game at Gillette Stadium, the league decided that defenders making contact with pass catchers on passing plays are again a problem. For this season, NFL referees have been instructed to focus on illegal contact penalties, according to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert. The penalty was called an average of 97 times per year from 2002-2020 and in 2021 it fell to 36. I guess the competition committee ground some tape and saw that many of those calls were missed. The lack of illegal contact penalties is due to referee error, and not that defensive backs and especially linebackers are more athletic than they have ever been.

What I would’ve hoped was in Seifert’s report is a problem the NFL has from last season in wide receivers living their NBA dreams by flopping. Pass interference is a spot foul and automatic first down. If the ball is underthrown, pass catchers can run into the defensive player and make it look like their process to the ball is being impeded. In a game where plays that flip field position like that is crucial, an offense gets a massive gain on an action that has nothing to do with actually playing football.

That is a play that actually damages the quality of the game. People watch football to watch some of the best athletes in the world compete against each other in a fight for that ball. The offense is trying to advance it into the end zone, and the defense is trying to both stop that from happening and get the ball back for its own offense in the most optimal position for them to score.

The physical group and individual battles that happen during plays are what make the NFL an entertaining product. Yes, player safety is a concern, but the focus of the competition committee should not always be about more penalties. That is the most frustrating part of the game. The fewer that can be called, the better. The concern should be making the game safer, but also keeping the product as entertaining as possible.

So, while pass catchers do need freedom of movement to keep the action on the field going I sincerely hope this illegal contact edict isn’t like the taunting one of 2021. That one felt like the competition committee simply did it because it bothered some of the members, and had nothing to do with improving the game. Maybe the forthcoming illegal contact penalties will make the game better, but what would be a noticeable improvement is offenses not awarded with field position in the red zone on a bad throw from the quarterback.

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