NFL preseason games are dominated by penalty flags

SEATTLE — As Seattle Seahawks defensive back Tharold Simon sprinted down the sideline in front of his teammates Friday night, he, coach Pete Carroll and just about everyone else in blue thought he was reaping the reward for textbook coverage on San Diego Chargers receiver Dontrelle Inman.

In the 2014 version on the NFL, however, Simon was guilty of illegal contact, so instead of a pick-six, the Seahawks were back on defense, and one play later the San Diego Chargers had a touchdown.

“To be honest, I really didn’t feel anything,” Simon said of the contact. “I know for a fact I didn’t initiate. He had one hand on me, but I know they’re trying to emphasize those calls. It’s OK for me, right now.”

“Right now” is the key phrase there.

That 14-point swing didn’t matter much, both because the Seahawks had a comfortable lead, and also because it was a preseason game. However, Simon’s 105-yard touchdown-turned-Chargers-first-down still became one of the biggest talking points of the game. It provided a glimpse of just how difficult things could be for defensive backs this season if the league really intends to crack down on illegal contact and defensive holding as much as it has thus far in the preseason.

“We were prepared for that, but that’s a big play,” safety Earl Thomas said. “Just imagine if it really mattered. If it was a real live game, that would have been devastating.”

What made the call against Simon particularly troubling to anyone who’s not a quarterback or receiver is that as well as Simon covered that play, the officials probably made the right call, based on the letter of the law. It seems the league now wants to punish any contact, no matter how incidental — and never mind who initiates it — that happens beyond five yards.

Did Simon make contact with Inman past five yards? Yes, but did it actually affect the play, or was Inman in better position than Simon to play the ball? It sure didn’t seem that way, but the flag still flew, because based on the way things are being called now, the league’s policy seems to be “when it doubt, pull the flag out.”

“It doesn’t seem quite right,” Carroll said. “It seems like there are too many calls being made and too many incidental calls that seem to be affecting the game. So we’ll see. They were going to do a thorough job of it and they really are tuned in. It’s obviously different. So then the question is, is it better? I don’t know. Hopefully we’ll have a good conversation about it.”

It’s easy to hear the Seahawks complain about that call and assume they’re just looking out for their own best interests. After all, the Seahawks, and their “Legion of Boom” secondary in particular, are known for physical play, so any point of emphasis focused on defensive backs is bad news for Seattle, right? But in reality this is a league-wide issue.

Seattle’s starting defensive backs have yet to draw a flag in two preseason games, while across the NFL we’ve seen a huge uptick in defensive penalties, including plenty of ticky-tacky calls that have favored Seattle’s offense. This isn’t about what’s good for the Seahawks; it’s about what’s good for people who like watching football games decided by players and not officials.

When it comes to player safety, I’m all for erring on the side of caution, even if it might occasionally mean penalizing an innocent defensive player. But does football really need more rules that do nothing but help passing offenses?

We’re in an era of unprecedented passing numbers and record scoring, yet the league’s response to that is to make things even harder for defenses? It doesn’t make sense unless you buy into Peyton-Manning-favoritism conspiracy theories (Is the league is helping make things easier for Denver’s record-setting quarterback, even if the last point of emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact came a season after another Manning-led team lost the Super Bowl to a physical defense?)

This issue isn’t about things being harder on the Seahawks, it’s an issue of football being watchable, and remotely balanced. If the NFL really intends to stick to its guns and call things this tightly in the regular season, one of two things will happen. Either games will become a lot longer and almost unwatchable as drives hinge not on who can make plays, but on what receivers are best at running into a defensive back. Or defensive backs will begrudgingly adjust, and we’ll see the first 6,000-yard passer in NFL history, because playing defense will become impossible.

Have things really become that tough on offenses over the past few years that this change was necessary?

Carroll said dialogue between teams and the league is already ongoing, so hopefully some middle ground is reached before the Seahawks and Packers play what could be a four-hour season opener.

“It’s the preseason,” Thomas said. “They always call it ticky-tacky during the preseason, then they kind of let up during the season. We know that.”

Or if they don’t know it, the Seahawks at least hope it. And if you’re a fan of football that isn’t a glorified passing exhibition, or an officiating showcase, you should hope so, too.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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