NFL running games on verge of extinction

With more penalties being called against defensive players in the preseason, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joked this week that maybe he’ll just tell his receivers to fall down on every play in hopes of drawing a flag once the regular season begins.

Roethlisberger laughed when he said it, so he was joking, right?

There has been little incentive for teams to run the football in recent years because the rules favor passing offenses. The emphasis this season on defensive holding and illegal contact swings the pendulum even more toward teams with capable quarterbacks.

If officials continue to throw penalty flags during the regular season at the rate they have in the preseason — penalties are up by more than 40 percent — would anyone be surprised to see some record-setting performances by offenses?

“If it remains like that then obviously you want to take advantage of it,” receiver Lance Moore said. “But I think the way you take advantage of it is calling more passing plays.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and other coaches on the league’s competition committee discussed the officiating during a conference call Tuesday. Tomlin did not indicate how he thought the officiating would unfold in the regular season, except to say the games would be officiated “appropriately.” He said his team’s offensive play-calling will not change much either way.

“There are several discussions that need to be had in terms of officiating,” Tomlin said. “It’s my job to coach our football team, respect the points of emphasis and get it displayed in our play.”

The competition committee wanted to emphasize existing rules on illegal contact and holding because some teams took liberties last season. Many point to the dominating performance by the Seattle Seahawks in their Super Bowl victory against Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos as the reason for the emphasis. Seattle defenders got physical with Denver receivers and held the Broncos to eight points after they set the NFL record for most points in a regular season.

The NFL had a similar reaction when the New England Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Rams had one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses of all time and were similarly roughed up in the Super Bowl.

“I thought it was a fair game,” Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton said of Seattle’s Super Bowl win. “I didn’t have any problems with it. Then again, I’m not going to complain. I’m an offensive player and it benefits me.”

Even offensive linemen, who are some of the last players in the league who speak of the importance of running the ball, acknowledge offensive coordinators will be tempted to take advantage of the rules emphasis.

“Absolutely,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “If we’re continuing to get first downs, that’s three more lives you get, at least. We have to be able to capitalize on that. If you get a new set of downs that’s more life.”

Once upon a time in the NFL, teams rushed the ball more than they passed it. That ended in the early 1980s after the 1978 rules changes that limited the amount of defensive contact a defensive back could have with a receiver.

Before 1978, teams routinely averaged more than 35 rush attempts per game and around 25 pass attempts. Since then, play-calling has become more slanted toward passing every year.

Last year, four teams averaged more than 40 pass attempts per game while eight teams, including the Steelers, averaged fewer than 25 rush attempts per game. Those figures will be skewed even more if the officiating continues on its current course.

“I think they’re trying to run up the score and make the game more exciting by helping out the offenses more,” Wheaton said.

Wheaton and Moore said they don’t consciously think about drawing penalties, but it’s difficult to overlook how many penalties are drawn by receivers when they make contact with a defender.

“I think you notice more than when you’re not playing,” Moore said. “If you’re watching the game on TV, you say, ‘Wow that’s another penalty.’ I’m not going to say it’s damaging the flow of the games, but officials get graded out just like players. If it’s a point of emphasis for them to call those penalties then more will get called because they want to grade out well just like we do.”

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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