At MetLife Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys lose a touchdown because one of their receivers might have started blocking a moment too early on a screen pass. An hour or so later, the San Diego Chargers have a score wiped off the board when the slightest of movements from their receiver causes an Oakland Raiders defensive back to fall.
This is how the NFL executes a point of emphasis: Pushing officials to enforce a penalty so strictly -- offensive pass interference (OPI), in this case -- that sometimes they seem to see ghosts. Through nearly seven weeks of play, the league is ahead of its 2014 record pace of OPI penalties. Officials are paying special attention not only to receivers pushing off at the top of their routes, as they did last season, but also to early blocking on screens and to pick plays as well.
The details are in the chart. So far this season, which has one game remaining in Week 7, teams have been called for a total of 61 OPI penalties, according to ESPN Stats & Information's database. That puts the league ahead of its 2014 record pace that resulted in 143 OPI penalties (accepted, declined and offset). If this rate continues, the NFL will have doubled the number of these penalties within a two-year period.
The New England Patriots (six) and the Philadelphia Eagles (five) have been hardest hit, which is not surprising considering the short-range passing schemes they often use. (The Green Bay Packers have been called only once, a bit of an anomaly considering the frequency with which they use pick plays.)
Some of Sunday's calls came on what seemed like borderline plays. The NFL rulebook (Rule 8, Section 5, Article 4) prohibits blocking more than 1 yard past the line of scrimmage before the ball is thrown. Cowboys receiver Devin Street was 6 yards past the line when he engaged New York Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but to the naked eye, it appeared he did so at the same time as quarterback Matt Cassel threw the ball.
It was certainly close enough to let go in most cases, but not when the league has called for a point of emphasis. Referee John Parry quickly made the call.
Later, at Qualcomm Stadium, Chargers receiver Keenan Allen ran into the end zone while looking back at quarterback Philip Rivers. As the ball arrived, Allen twisted his body toward the sideline to make the catch. In the process, he raised his left arm around Raiders cornerback Neiko Thorpe, finishing with a swat-like motion that made it appear he had pushed off. That was enough for referee Jerome Boger's crew.
To provide further context, neither Parry nor Boger is among the leaders in OPI penalty calls among the NFL's 17 crews this season. That distinction belongs to Ronald Torbert, whose crew has called nine. The crews of Walt Coleman and Terry McAulay have called six apiece.
What is the NFL's goal here? In some ways, it's the same as it was with its emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding. It wants clean downfield play in the passing game. Players are to focus on the ball, not each other, in any attempt to make a play. Otherwise, they can risk a penalty -- on either side of the ball.
Footballs, bows and arrows
Last week, I detailed 15 unconventional ways an NFL player can be fined. Here's a 16th: Using the ball as a prop in a celebration, which mandates a 15-yard penalty during the game.
The penalty always jars the casual observer because it is not enforced consistently. In Week 4, for example, Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was penalized for mimicking the act of riding a horse, with the football between his legs, after an interception return. On the other hand, officials did not penalize St. Louis Rams receiver Stedman Bailey during the same week for using the ball as a pillow during a celebration.
(That's a paragraph I never thought I would write.)
In an informational video distributed to the media, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said that Bailey should have been penalized.
"This was a rule that was put in place to prevent things from escalating," Blandino said. "We had situations where players were using the ball as a prop, and it was getting elaborate, it was getting extensive, and we were creating this animosity with the team that scored, and then the team that got scored upon, and we were ending up with altercations, and this got out of control.
"We certainly don't want to take the fun out of the game. Players can celebrate. They can high-five, they can fist-bump, whatever it is. But they cannot use the football as a prop."
The whole conversation sounds silly, but 15 yards in a close game is nothing to laugh at. I'm guessing that's why I got questions Sunday from readers wondering if Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry should have been penalized for a celebration in which he tossed the ball in the air and mimicked the act of shooting it with a bow and arrow.
Berry's emotions were obvious, having just made his first interception since he was diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2014. But if you want to get technical -- and who doesn't when it comes to archery -- the ball served as the target in this celebration. I'm glad referee Walt Coleman didn't throw the flag, but he probably should have. Berry, like Bailey and Norman in Week 4, will probably receive a fine letter from the NFL later this week.