Less flags, penalty yards this postseason

Though numbers suggest otherwise, commissioner Paul Tagliabue suggests that the officiating hasn't changed in the playoffs.

Updated: January 30, 2004, 5:53 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- Confronted by the popular and growing notion that game officials have used a different standard for calling infractions during the postseason, commissioner Paul Tagliabue insisted Friday that it is the quality of the teams involved in the playoffs that has reduced the number of flags.

"I think we're over contemplating something," Tagliabue said during his annual Super Bowl news conference. "The better the athlete, the better the team, the fewer infractions. Our officiating is consistent during the regular season and the postseason."

But the problem with the commissioner's spin, the hackneyed contention that superior teams commit fewer infractions, is somewhat flawed. Fact is, the teams in Super Bowl XXXVIII ranked ninth (Carolina) and 10th (New England) in penalties administered against them during the regular season.

Carolina was flagged 116 times during the year and the Patriots were hit with 111 infractions. In the postseason, the Panthers have endured 17 penalties in three games, far below their 7.25 flags-per-game in the regular season. In the victory over Dallas in the wild-card round, Carolina sustained zero penalties.

The Patriots have collected just six penalties in two preseason victories. New England averaged 6.9 flags administered in the regular season. It can't be just happenstance that game officials are calling fewer fouls and, the league spin aside, the perception is that the zebras have the flags all but sewn into their pockets in the postseason.

Five of the dozen playoff qualifiers ranked in the top half of the league in penalties and so, Tagliabue's explanation notwithstanding, the numbers indicate that some flag-dazed franchises do, indeed, make it to the playoffs.

The numbers also indicate that officials are more reluctant to allow one of their calls to decide the outcome of a playoff contest. The more anonymous the officials remain in the postseason, the happier they are, and there is something positive to be said for allowing the players to decide the games.

The problem comes when league officials deny there is a difference between the manner in which they legislate games when the postseason begins. Much of the controversy that surfaced this year came after the AFC championship contest, in which there were seven penalties called, but all were pre-snap infractions.

In that game, it appeared officials allowed the New England secondary excess latitude in manhandling the Indianapolis receivers. One league official conceded in the days after the game that the officiating crew missed six calls.

During the regular season, games averaged 13.2 penalties administered, and the average number of penalty yards marched off was 109.5. Those averages through the 10 games of this year's Super Bowl tournament: Just 9.3 penalties and 66.7 penalty yards.

In six of the 10 playoffs game this year, there were fewer than 10 penalties administered.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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