More than anything, the NFL preseason is a time for panic. Some of us worry about injuries in meaningless games. Others are prone to make sweeping generalizations about the season to come, and a few attempt to extrapolate leaguewide themes based on what we see in half-filled stadiums on steamy August nights.
And so it goes after the first full week of the 2014 preseason, a period that brought us the initial consequences -- fully expected but still jarring -- of this year's officiating points of emphasis. I'm sure you've seen the raw numbers floating about, but the chart below is an attempt to provide a better comparison to the 2013 preseason and regular season. (All figures include both accepted and declined penalties.)
As you can see, officials have opened the preseason by calling illegal contact or defensive holding at about five times the rate of last year (penalties per pass attempt). Put another way, officials called 28 more of those penalties in the first week of the 2014 preseason than they did in all four weeks of the 2013 preseason, according to my unofficial records. Meanwhile, they have called offensive pass interference about 2.5 times the 2013 rate, a notable increase but not necessarily enough to balance out the flow sheet.
If you're into projecting, those increased rates would lead to a surge from 285 illegal contact/defensive holding penalties in the 2013 regular season to 1,425 in 2014, based on a similar number of attempts. It would also mean a jump from 74 offensive pass interference penalties to 185.
It's at that point, I think, that we're getting ahead of ourselves and risking overreaction. Ever since these points of emphasis were released to coaches, the anticipation has been for a painful preseason designed to pull players away from undesired contact. (A refresher: Anything beyond 5 yards past the line of scrimmage for illegal contact, and minor or major grabbing of receivers for defensive holding.) Officials conducting rules seminars at training camp, whether to teams or media members, made clear to expect the strictest interpretation imaginable in the preseason.
It's worth noting that most coaches and players I encountered at a recent training camp tour were far less panicked about the situation than those of us outside the game. They expect more penalties in 2014 than 2013, but they predict the rate will taper as they align their techniques with the NFL's updated rule interpretation. Officials who conducted the Cincinnati Bengals' seminar, in fact, said players were most interested in discussing a planned crackdown on verbal abuse -- not the defensive or offensive points of emphasis.
In the big picture, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer views the summer of 2014 as a course correction for a plan that went astray after its original inception. In 2004, you might remember, the NFL introduced similar points of emphasis after complaints that the New England Patriots' defensive backs were too physical in a playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
"This is going to affect the way the players are playing, sure," Zimmer said. "But what happened the last time they did it is that the officials backed off a little bit, and that's why it got back to where it was. The coaches and players are going to have to, like anything else, react."
"You've just got to correct them in practice and get them to develop their habits in practice, keeping their hands off the receiver after 5 yards and just get a feel for what the 5 yards is," Giunta said. "It's hard. And you've got to get a feel for the officiating crew, too, because some of the guys will let you go 6 or 7 and other guys will give you a strict 5. They're trying to make it more of a strict 5 this year."
"Maybe defenses are going to have to find a way to get up there and jam everyone off the ball," Hawk said. "Just don't let anyone off the line."
So I wouldn't panic just yet. Even if illegal contact and defensive holding are called at five times the rate of 2013, it still means they won't be called on 92 out of every 100 passes you see. Relax. We'll get through this together.