NFL is worrying about the wrong flag controversy

The NFL has a flag problem but it is fixating on the wrong flag. It's not the red, white and blue one unfurled before the game. It's the yellow ones littering the field every game that is their real problem.

Vladimir Putin would love today’s NFL. Nothing a Russian dictator likes to see more than a lot of flags unfurled while marshal law goes into effect.

That, in essence, is what the NFL has devolved into: A game where endless touchdowns are intermixed with endless penalty flags thrown to insure those touchdowns will keep coming. It’s like watching a pinball machine on permanent tilt.

The NFL is turning into a weekly weekend Flag Day celebration. Only problem is no one is celebrating those flags but quarterbacks now encased in bubble wrap courtesy of a competition committee gone mad.

In the first three weeks of this season, there have been 34 roughing-the-passer penalties. That’s more than twice as many as the same period last year, when only 16 were called. Four came in one game, the Monday night debacle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It got to the point where defensive players were flagged for looking cross at the quarterback.

Even Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the beneficiary of two of those calls, hinted that this has gotten ridiculous.

"There are sure a lot of them,” Roethlisberger said, “I can’t imagine the fans at home are enjoying it too much."

They are not, which is why fewer and fewer people are watching at home. Or in the stands, as the Redskins found out when their seemingly endless streak of home sellouts came to an end earlier this year.

NFL owners fear the flag is hurting their product and irking their fans, and they are right. They just have the wrong flag problem.

It’s not a few players taking a knee during the National Anthem that’s the problem with the flag. It's NFL officials taking defense out of the game by unfurling flag after flag that is making pro football unwatchable for some … and something best be done about it. In a hurry.

The league has made roughing-the-passer calls a point of emphasis this season, with much of the focus literally falling on a portion of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 13, which reads: “When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up or cradle the passer with the defensive player’s arms.”

Okay. Fine. No slamming Tom Brady into the ground or dumping Cam Newton head first into the turf. Understood. What is not understood, some members of the league’s competition committee privately concede, is how far to take that rule.

Officials, like lawyers, tend to err on the side of caution. Better we cover our ass when a quarterback’s on his ass than face the potential ire of the suits on Park Avenue who run the NFL even though most of them never tackled anything but a math problem.

When lawyers and P.R guys start writing the rules, or deciding which ones to emphasize, what you end up with is what the NFL has been the last three weeks: A soft but politically correct game that bears no resemblance to the one that made pro football a financial colossus.

What’s next? Everyone gets a Super Bowl trophy and equal playing time?

We are not advocating gratuitous violence here. We’re just asking how in the world is someone making a head on tackle not going to land on top of the guy he’s knocking backwards?

That is what Clay Matthews was flagged for three weeks in a row, leading him to raise a good point last Sunday.

“Obviously when you’re tackling a guy from the front, you’re going to land on him,’’ Matthews said after being flagged for doing just that to Redskins’ quarterback Alex Smith. “I understand the spirit of the rule. I said that [in] weeks prior. When you have a hit like that, that’s a football play. I even went up to Alex Smith after the game and asked him, ‘What do you think? What can I do differently?’

“Like I said last week, the NFL’s going to come back and say I put my body on him. But that’s a football play. I hit him from the front, got my head across, wrapped up. I’ve never heard of anybody tackling somebody without any hands.

“When he gives himself up as soon as you hit him, your body weight’s going to go on him. I think we’re looking for the hits that took (Packers’ quarterback) Aaron (Rodgers) out last year, that little extra (which resulted in Rodgers breaking his collarbone from a hit by Anthony Barr). If I wanted to hurt him, I could’ve.

“Unfortunately, this league is going in a direction I think a lot of people don’t like. I think they’re getting soft. The only thing hard about this league is the fines that they levy down on guys like me who play the game hard…I’ve been playing this game for over 20 years. That’s how you tackle.’’

Former head of officials and now FOX Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira agreed, telling the Talk of Fame Network this week, “I do not think this is what the competition committee intended. It’s out of hand, to me. The needle has moved too far.’���

Pereira added that an adjustment was quietly made on the use of the helmet rule that was added in the offseason after “they realized in the pre-season they had a debacle on their hands with helmet hits. They gave officials a green light to pass on making the call. I liked the backing off.’’

Pereira believes the same is about to happen on roughing the passer after a previously scheduled conference call with the competition committee occurs next week. Hopefully, he’s right because Flag Days have gotten to the point where the NFL needs to worry less about protecting their quarterbacks and more about protecting their game.

Pro football is a big money business, the most popular sport in America. It is also a collision sport, violent by its very nature. But attendance and viewership are now in decline, and it’s not because the country is going soft. It’s because pro football is. What is being done to change the nature of the game is a bigger part of waning interest than the suits realize.

In its effort to avoid lawsuits and liability claims, the NFL is mistakenly changing the basic nature of the sport. And please spare me all the talk about “player safety’’ because if that were the issue teams wouldn’t be shooting up players with pain killers every weekend so they can get back on the field when they’d be on medical leave at most other jobs.

Perhaps someone needs to remind the people who run the NFL these days of one thing: A lot of people play touch football but the only ones watching it are the parents of the players.

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