FOXBOROUGH — More flags than the United Nations.
That's the best way to describe what we've seen so far in the preseason, and it has been an adjustment for everyone, from players to coaches to fans.
The NFL has placed an emphasis on illegal contact by defensive players against receivers more than five yards downfield, as well as illegal hands to the face between defensive and offensive linemen. The resulting chaos has been filled with scrutiny over the length of the games — which are now taking well over three hours to complete.
"It seems like every couple of plays, there's another flag," said safety Devin McCourty. "It'll be tough for people trying to watch the game and have work in the morning and stuff like that."
There are differing opinions on what will happen when the regular season starts: some believe the flags will slow down a bit, others believe they will continue at the current rate. McCourty says that while the flags may come at a higher rate, there's a fine line between playing within the rules and overcompensating because of the rules emphasis.
"I think it's hard to try to change your whole game," McCourty said. "We don't want to start giving up long passes and touchdowns just to say, 'I didn't want illegal contact.' So hopefully, they just reduce the flags and we get to play a little bit."
At this point, there's no indication of that happening.
Through the first two weeks of the preseason (63 games, including the Hall of Fame game), there have been 1,490 penalty flags thrown. That's an average of 23.7 flags per game. According to Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com, that's nearly twice last year's average of 12.7 flags per game.
As a result of the new rules emphasis, the preseason playing time is a little more valuable this year than it has been in years past. Players need the extra time to not only go through the usual progression of training camp and the preseason, but also to adjust to the new rules.
"I think any time you get out there in a game atmosphere and you're playing, and then like you said, with the refs out there and then playing together, I think that's always key going into the season," McCourty said. "It's better than, you know, the first time you go out there, it's live bullets, it's actually counting. I always think it's good to get some of the preseason reps in there. I mean, hopefully we don't see as many flags as we've been seeing this preseason."
Will there be a change? It's impossible to tell at this point. The players are simply doing all they can to play within the rules, and trying to get acclimated to the new rules emphasis.
"I think we just gotta work through it," said corner Darrelle Revis. "Teams have been working through it during this preseason. I think it's a learning situation for everybody. It's a new rule. The refs are trying to do the best they can. As players, we're trying to do the best we can by keeping our hands off the receivers down the field. And that's a learning process. Maybe in the regular season, things might change. You never know. At this moment, man, everybody's just trying to do the right thing by following the rules."
There are only three possible conclusions: Perhaps the officials will keep the flags in their pockets more in the regular season, once players have gotten the message about the rules emphasis; perhaps the flags will fly at their current inordinate rate; or perhaps public outcry will swell to a point where the league and officials must re-adjust their expectations.
There's no way of knowing at this point, so all we can do is hope for the best, and all the players can do is try their hardest to play within the rules.