Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Are there Too Many Penalties in the NFL? And is there too little actual “football” in a football game, for that matter?

I have been a fan of the NFL since I was very young, watching the games with my father, though I remember being mildly confused and bored at first, generally reading the paper or a book between plays. A few decades later (god I’m old!) a question popped into my head that has actually been mulling around up there on and off for some time now – are there too many penalties in the game? I decided to do some research on the historical trends, but even as I found the number of penalties over the past six years has been relatively steady, I can’t shake the sense that the answer is a resounding YES. Maybe it is because I also watch real football (aka soccer) every week, and play is stopped substantially less frequently in most games. Maybe it is because I already knew I was making a three and a half hour commitment for 11 minutes of actual action (WSJ). Yes, that’s right, 11 minutes!!!! Or maybe it is just a sense that any game where someone is doing something wrong so often really needs to think about the rules themselves (sounds kind of like Wall Street, if they had any actual rules).

As to the research – it is extremely hard to find long-term historical data on penalties. I did find these statistics for the past six seasons in several places (best here, I guess: NFL Penalties) and extrapolating the data shows this year being more or less on target with previous ones. The big focus in the offseason was dealing with a decline in defensive holding and illegal contact calls last year (SB Nation), with some believing Seattle was getting away with roughhousing receivers too often en route to a Super Bowl victory. In games I’ve watched, there has been a noticeable increase in those calls, though I don’t think aggregated data is available yet (here it is from 2009 to 2013: Best Ticket).

The challenge system has certainly helped with ensuring refs get the calls right, but it has also prolonged the game even longer and seems to combine with the constant penalty calls to give me what I will henceforth call referee fatigue (definition: seeing and hearing from the officials too often on any given Sunday, particularly long, convoluted explanations of why they are screwing over one of the two teams; not to be confused with Terry Bradshaw fatigue, though the parallels are obvious). That fatigue is only amplified now that the networks have decided to hire full-time ex-refs to explain and question every call and non-call that occurs throughout the games.

When one looks at the breakdown of the three and a half hour broadcast of a typical game, we already have about an hour of commercials (or “beer and dip refresher breaks”), another 75 minutes of watching players huddling, on the sideline or just “kicking it” between plays (“general boredom breaks"), only 30 seconds or so for the otherwise faceless announcers (though I'm not complaining there), about double the playing time for replays, some shots of injured players (generally longer than players celebrating), the occasional crowd shot, all those cool graphics and charts and cut-aways to see highlights from other games. It is a veritable cornucopia of time wasting before we get to the next play, though I believe it has become the essential feature of watching the game. We want to hear the announcers repeat the same all cliches over and over again, listen to the silly 15-second interview with the coaches at halftime (“we need to cut down on the turnovers”), enjoy the completely inane things the sideline reporter will say as they shake hysterically from the cold as we sit cozy in our warm abodes (e.g., Tony Siragusa looking at a child in the crowd like his next meal while he talks about nothing in particular), here the doctoral dissertation like discussions of why that play worked and the other one didn’t, ignore the homophobic references throughout a game largely predicated on saving American masculinity (e.g., tight ends, wide receivers, grabbing the ball between another guy’s legs, penetration, “passing,” etc.) and still sit awe-struck at how they can draw those cool red and white lines on our television screens.

But the refs? They are just those annoying guys from the Halloween party that forgot to take off their zebra suits, interrupting the spectacle with calls that screw our team over, or help us when we don’t really deserve it (though we certainly won’t complain then). They miss the obvious calls, make ones that make us scratch our head or break the coffee table and hide their noggins in a black hole every once in a while, like cats after they did something wrong. Haven’t we had enough of the whole lot of them? Maybe we should send them down to Brazil for some additional training – learning about the ref in a soccer game last year that stabbed a player in extra time and was then beheaded after the game. Now that sounds like something all football fans could unite behind!

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