First he was surprised, then a little miffed, then just totally over it.
Kelvin Hayden didn’t know how to react last Thursday night when the flag came whistling by. The penalty against the Bears cornerback was for illegal contact.
Of course it was.
During a flag-happy preseason, that’s been one of the major points of emphasis for officials trying to regulate the volume of physicality between receivers and defensive backs. The NFL has decided that the passing game needs less contact downfield. And so far, they’re using exhibition games to drive home their point home with a sledgehammer -- even if it has meant a heavy volume of ticky-tack calls like the one against Hayden last week.
In real time, Hayden knew he hadn’t done anything illegal against Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Marqise Lee. Replays proved his assertion. On a third-and-13 play in which quarterback Chad Henne was sacked by Trevor Scott, Hayden was playing off Lee in the slot. Lee darted 9 yards up the field, got to the top of his route and collided with Hayden, whose hands never extended or grabbed Lee.
Yet here came the flag anyway.
“I went right to the ref,” Hayden said. “And I told him, ‘Hey, he ran into me.’ And all he could say was, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do that.’ Do what exactly? Eventually I was like, whatever. Next play.”
Hayden later looked at the play in a team meeting and came to the same conclusion. He would have loved to correct his mistake if he knew exactly what it was.
“Coach said it was a tough call,” Hayden said. “But they still called it. So you move on. Right now, I’m thinking they’re just putting an emphasis on this to make guys conscious of what’s going on. But as a player, you have to continue to play. Is what it is.”
As an annual custom, the league sends officials around to training camps to educate players on the new points of emphasis. And the league made their points clear this month.
This year’s discussions, complete with a video explanation for the media, targeted three main concerns down the field with illegal contact, defensive holding and offensive pass interference under the microscope. Illegal hands to the face at the line of scrimmage is also being enforced more closely this preseason.
According to the Washington Post, through two weeks of preseason games there have been 756 penalties, compared with just 526 through two weeks of preseason games last year. According to the Post’s research, “Of the 230 additional penalties this year, 134 of them have been attributable to increases in illegal contact and defensive holding calls. There have been 55 illegal contact penalties this preseason, up from eight through two preseason games last year. There have been 107 defensive holding penalties, compared to 20 at this point in the 2013 preseason.”
And yes, many of the calls have certainly been legitimate. But the eye-catching spike has also included iffy calls like the one last week against Hayden.
The general feeling around football is that the calls will subside when the regular season begins with no one wanting 3 1/2-hour games drawn out by flag after flag after flag. In other words, all the penalties during exhibition games should send a message that, in theory, players will respond to. And soon enough officials should relax some on calling everything so tightly.
But teams around the league aren’t taking anything for granted. To adapt to the new emphases, the Browns have spent part of the preseason with their defensive backs wearing kick-boxing gloves at practice, accessories that restrict players’ attempts to grab or use their hands in coverage.
Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has had his defensive backs holding tennis balls as a restraint.
The Bears haven’t added any props to their practices. And defensive coordinator Mel Tucker doesn’t seem overly concerned with the surge in calls.
In total, in their first two preseason games, the Bears have been flagged for illegal contact just once and defensive holding twice.
“It really boils down to hand placement,” Tucker said. “That's really the focus this week, making sure our hands are in the right place. We want to make sure our hands are inside and not where they're not supposed to be.
“From an illegal contact standpoint, that's not a new rule. It's what it is and we've got to coach through it. But we want our guys to be aggressive and play aggressively through their technique and then we'll clean them up along the way.”
Quick last word from Hayden?
“It’s disturbing as a player,” he said. “Because you’re out there doing your job the right way and you still get penalized for it.
“Right now they’re putting their emphasis on it and you have to do your best to either get out of the way or not touch the guy you’re covering at all. It’s rough. It’s rough. But it’s part of it now. As a player, you can sit there and complain and let it linger. But the game goes on, the next play is up and you have to forget about it.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun