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More Penalties? How Will the Patriots Handle New Emphasis on Illegal Contact?

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Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner broke up a pass to Washington Redskin wide receiver Cody Hoffman during a training camp scrimmage this week. AP Photo


If you’ve been keeping up with the Patriots on Twitter this week, the general consensus seems to be that New England will score at will against any opponent this season, at least based on some of the fawning reports out of Richmond, Va., where the Patriots held joint practices with the Washington Redskins in advance of Thursday night’s preseason opener (7:30 p.m., Ch. 4) at FedEx Field.

Every time Tom Brady and Julian Edelman hooked up in practice, it was treated like a developing story. More than a few covering the scrimmage breathlessly reacted in each instance with a wide-eyed exclamation comparable to what it must be like to witness the Grand Canyon for the first time.

Not that the first preseason game is much different than the glorified contest of flag football the Patriots and Redskins participated in this week, but at least it’s on TV, where they’ll try to make believe it matters. It will look and sound like it matters, with whistles and everything. It will triple the ratings for Thursday’s Red Sox-Cardinals game, which frankly doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot at this stage either unless you’re from St. Louis.

But it’s still going to be football, and you can pretend you care even just a little bit. Rob Gronkowski isn’t even in the Washington, DC zip code. Tom Brady may or may not sit this one out, based on conflicting reports, potentially leaving the starting honors to Ryan Mallett as the Patriots are in the midst of desperately trying to find a taker for the fourth-year quarterback. Darrelle Revis and anybody else the Patriots are even remotely depending on this season should also be out of the game by the time primetime rolls around.

What we’re going to be left with is the Mallett-Jimmy Garoppolo battle to be the backup quarterback behind Brady. As far as compelling TV goes, it’s not exactly the 4 p.m. game on a Sunday in late November, but it’s better than watching “Hollywood Game Night.”

The game will, however, offer viewers the opportunity to see how the Patriots secondary handles the wrinkle the NFL has added this season to the outcry of purists everywhere. The added emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding, otherwise known as the fantasy football rule, is a potential headache for defensive backs this season. The league claims its intentions are in the interest of player safety, even as it aims to increase scoring in a game that has seen far too much of it in recent years. Who's going to set the touchdown record this season? I'll go with Rodgers.

Defensive backs can make contact within five yards of the line of scrimmage, but anything after that will be called a penalty. As Mike Reiss pointed out, Redskins players noted that they thought the Pats were regularly making contact down the field in practices this week, so it may be interesting to see how many instances New England is penalized on Thursday night.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seemed thrilled this week when asked about the NFL’s enforcement of illegal contact and if it might lead to an increase in penalties this season.

“ I have no idea,” he said. “I have no idea.”

Well, he may not know what’s to come, but Belichick was certainly an impetus behind the league cracking down on defensive back contact with receivers in the first place, otherwise known as the “Bill Polian Went to the Commissioner and Cried Because the Patriots Walloped the Colts in the AFC Championship Game” rule.

Belichick and the Pats' defense unveiled a way to stop Peyton Manning cold in the 2003 title game by smacking Marvin Harrison and company around Gillette Stadium like piñatas, much to the chagrin of the Colts. During the offseason, the NFL instructed officials to enforce the contact rules, and lo and behold, the very next season Manning set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes. All the Patriots did in the playoffs was hold the Colts to three points in order to move onto the AFC title game against Pittsburgh.

So, isn’t it ironic that 10 years later, after Manning once again suffered an embarrassing playoff defeat – this time in the Super Bowl - at the hands of a superior defense in the Seattle Seahawks, here we are again, making sure the rules remain quarterback friendly? “Brady’s gonna have huge fantasy numbers,” as Jonathan Kraft might say. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said he views the enforcement as a sign of “respect” for the way his team manhandled the Broncos last February. Does the NFL spell that “R18PECT?”

Is it all much ado about nothing, or is just another way for the NFL to cater to the casual fan and the fantasy crowd? Fantasy football is a $70 billion market, according to Forbes. Over the past four years, fantasy revenue has seen a 48 percent increase, and that number is only going to go up. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, about 32 million Americans spend $467 per person -- or about $15 billion total on playing fantasy sports. And $11 billion of that is dedicated to football. Keep the fantasy players happy, the more money that flows in.

Even to the detriment of the sport as we know (knew) it?

“The rules are the rules. You’ve got to adjust to the rules,” Revis said as the Patriots kicked off training camp last month. “There are always new rules changing, and as long as we know the rules, we’re going to try to play great football – clean and great football within the rules.

“It’s already difficult as it is. Like I said, the rules are the rules. We’ve got to play within the rules. The league is always changing and evolving, so you’ve got to abide by the rules.”

The rules. Got it.

So, while Thursday will be primarily about trying to sell Ryan Mallett (I can hear that ball “pop” already) as a starting quarterback, it’s also an opportunity to see how the Patriots react to the latest way that the NFL is insisting on making its game “safer.” What a farce.

It may be football Thursday night. Sort of. What’s to say we might not also be saying the same thing in a few weeks?

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