Vikings surviving NFL’s painful flag-fest

The NFL is making its preseason harder to watch with the increased number of penalties, but at least the Vikings have been one of the better teams at avoiding the flag.

Few things irritate coaches more than when their teams commit penalties. It doesn’t matter if it’s a preseason game or the regular season, penalties are drive killers on offense and drive extenders on defense and help coaches go prematurely gray.

There are always more penalties called in the preseason because, with all the roster hopefuls that are in games more than the starters, the level of play is typically much more sloppy than when teams go with their top stars in the regular season.

But there has been a trend that has been quite disturbing as a point of emphasis by officials. Points of emphasis are common among officials asked to enforce the rules of the game. A couple of years ago, hitting players deemed as defensive was a POE. A couple of years before that, offensive holding penalties were the POE.

The current point of emphasis is one that has been a defensive staple for years – grabbing the uniform of a receiver when a defender is engaged with him. Typically a jersey pull has needed to be obvious to be called – whether among linemen or wide receivers and defensive backs. It’s part of the game, just like wide receivers pushing off on jump balls.

We’re through just two weeks of the preseason and the number of penalties being called is at unprecedented levels. The pace of the game has been altered as, time and again, yellow flags are being thrown.

Regardless of the game, having 10 or more penalties called on a team is unacceptable. Through two weeks of the preseason, 27 teams are averaging 10 or more penalties and New Orleans is by far the worst offender – having committed 51 penalties (42 accepted and nine declined).

Fortunately for the Vikings, they are one of just five teams that haven’t been flagged 10 or more times a game this preseason. Considering what so many other teams are going through, it’s an achievement to be where the Vikings rank.

Below is the full list of teams and the number of flags they’ve had thrown on them. The first number is the number of accepted penalties and the second number is the number of called penalties that were declined.

New Orleans (42/9)
New York Giants (35/6)
Houston (34/6)
Miami (29/6)
Philadelphia (28/9)
Kansas City (27/7)
Cleveland (27/6)
St. Louis (27/3)
New England (26/6)
Atlanta (25/6)
Buffalo (24/7)
Green Bay (24/6)
Chicago (24/3)
New York Jets (24/3)
Washington (24/3)
Arizona (24/2)
Jacksonville (24/2)
Oakland (23/3)
Seattle (23/2)
Denver (23/1)
Detroit (22/6)
Dallas (22/4)
Indianapolis (22/4)
Cincinnati (21/1)
Tampa Bay (19/2)
Carolina (18/5)
Pittsburgh (17/4)
Minnesota (17/2)
San Francisco (17/1)
Tennessee (16/2)
San Diego (14/3)
Baltimore (14/1)

As troubling as the high number of penalties is, even worse is the primary penalty on the point of emphasis – defensive holding. Some have referred to it as “The Seattle Rule” because the aggressive Seahawks defense consistently stymied offenses, often using a jersey grab to gain an advantage. Everybody does it, but Seattle did it so well it may have been deemed that they were gaining an advantage.

The difference between defensive holding and most penalties is that, while they’re only 5-yard penalties, they come with an automatic first down. If a team is facing a third-and-15 play and a defender on the opposite side of the field grabs a jersey – if the jersey moves, the flag comes out – it results in an automatic first down that can continue an otherwise dead drive and potentially impact the outcome of a game.

Regardless of the intent of the POE, the result has been staggering. While there are always more penalties called in the preseason that in the regular season, the proportion has been consistent – about two more penalties a game per team in the preseason than in the regular season. Those numbers have remained consistent over the past several years – about 15 penalties a preseason game and 13 penalties a game during the regular season.

If the consistency holds true, unless the league tells the refs to tuck their flags when the regular season starts, we’re in for seeing an average number of penalties at about 17 or 18 a game, with much of the increase being attributable to defensive holding calls that will result in automatic first downs.

Hopefully this will be viewed as Chicken Little claiming the sky is falling, but the penalty numbers from the preseason to the regular season have been so consistent that this year’s significant spike in penalties has to be seen as cause for concern unless the refs loosen the grip on their interpretation of the rules.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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