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There is nothing more frustrating as an NFL fan than when your team gets a defensive stop, but a flag comes in to move the offense forward. If this scenario makes you cringe, get ready for a long season. The league is putting a “point of emphasis” on illegal contact penalties in the NFL this year, and, historically, it means fans will see a huge increase in these calls. Former NFL referee Mike Pereira says these calls will “frustrate the daylights” out of fans this season.

Get ready for illegal contact penalties

The NFL didn’t implement any significant regular season rule changes this offseason. The only difference from last year is that the competition committee tweaked the playoff overtime rules to help avoid another Buffalo Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs scenario.

Instead of sweeping changes, the league is emphasizing calling more illegal contact penalties.

These penalties are automatic first downs for the offense and seemingly a response to league scoring being down last season.

Former NFL referee and Head of Officiating Mike Pereira joined the Rich Eisen Show this week and explained what is happening heading into the 2022 season.

“The [emphasis on] illegal contact is probably the one. And that’s the one, to me, that changes the game,” Pereira told Eisen. “You’re going to see more of those, and it’s going to frustrate the daylights out of people because it’s one thing to have a five-yard penalty when it’s 3rd-and-17, but when that five-yard penalty for illegal contact … it carries that five yards and an automatic first down. So, it becomes a huge penalty.”

NFL referees calling this penalty won’t necessarily boost scoring

Mike Pereira and others suggest that the reason the league is encouraging NFL referees to call so many illegal contact calls is to increase scoring.

Last year, scoring per game was down 1.8 points from the year prior, and passing yards were down 24 yards per game. However, the numbers for scoring and passing in 2021 were still well above average, ranking sixth-most all time. They were just down from 2020’s all-time high of 24.8.

The league has pulled this illegal contact level twice before, and the resulting number of calls was staggering.

In 2004, illegal contact calls went from 79 in ’03 to 191 in ’04. The years later, the NFL did it again. That season, these types of calls went from 52 to 148 during the season of emphasis.

Interestingly (and even more frustratingly), scoring didn’t go up both times. In 2004, scoring did jump from 20.8 to 21.5 points per game. However, in 2014, points per game went down, from 23.4 to 22.6 points.

Just to get ready for what’s to come, there were only 39 illegal contact penalties called in 2021. If the trend holds, there will be well over 100 this coming season.

What is an illegal contact penalty NFL?

NFL referees (one pictured here) will call more illegal contact fouls in the 2022 NFL season.
An NFL referee and his penalty flag | Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

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According to the NFL rulebook, there are two types of illegal contact penalties. There are ones that happen within five yards of the line of scrimmage and ones that occur further downfield.

The NFL defines illegal contact within five yards of the line of scrimmage:  

Within the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender may not make original contact in the back of a receiver, nor may he maintain contact after the receiver has moved beyond a point that is even with the defender.

Via the NFL rulebook

The NFL defines Illegal contact outside of the five-yard buffer zone:

Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him. A defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver.

Via the NFL rulebook

The one final note the NFL rulebook has on illegal contact is that “Beyond the five-yard zone, incidental contact may exist between receiver and defender,” and that is a penalty as well.

Buckle up, NFL fans. It’s going to be a long, frustrating season of these types of flags in pro football.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference