- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There were way too many instances of a couple of things during the NFL preseason: penalty flags and Johnny Manziel mentions.

Here’s hoping for a sharp decline in at least one of them.

It’s not that I crave additional coverage of Cleveland’s much-ballyhooed backup QB. There’s already been more than enough for no good reason. Johnny Football has morphed into Johnny Ad Nauseam.

But that’s not as sickening as the ticky-tacky penalties officials called on seemingly every pass attempt in August. With the league’s new emphasis on defensive-contact rules, exhibition games turned into an ugly form of flag football.

Blame it on the “Legion of Boom” that Seattle laid on NFL cover boy Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. Blame it on the league acquiescing to the stranglehold of fantasy football. Blame it on TV executives’ belief that offense sizzles and defense fizzles.

Whatever the reason, covering receivers under preseason conditions was harder than swatting flies without using your hands.

Through the first two weeks, there were 56 illegal contact penalties; through the entire 2013 regular season, there were 54.

“We expected [the increase],” NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said on NFL Network. “I think there’s an adjustment period for our officials, for the coaches and our players. When the regular season rolls around, I think everybody will be on the same page and I think you’ll see those foul totals go down.”

They better, because the league is walking a thin line between thrill and overkill. As much as fans like touchdowns and electrifying plays, they don’t want the NFL to resemble arena football played outdoors.

The Cleveland Gladiators scored 32 points in ArenaBowl XXVII last month. The Arizona Rattlers scored 72.

It’s one thing to crack down on the vicious hits that lead to broken necks and scrambled brains. Old-timers can complain about modern players wearing ballerina dresses all they want, but the sport has evolved to err on the side of safety (except when it comes to more Thursday night contests and the push for 18 regular-season games).

Defensive backs already have a near-impossible task at times, trying to hit receivers below the helmet as the receivers duck their heads all of which happens in fractions of seconds while both players are moving fast. But at least the goal is honorable, an attempt to protect the athletes from themselves and each other.

That’s not the case with this new focus on the jostling, bumping and hand-fighting that’s typical during the course of pass routes. And wideouts are just as “guilty” as DBs. But the league seems hellbent on making the latter group totally passive in pass coverage, to the point where no yards after catch becomes the new standard for good defense.

It’s not like we were slogging through a bunch of 17-10 contests and the rules needed a tweak. Of the top 11 single-season passing marks, all but two occurred between 2011 and 2013. There were 46.8 points scored in the average NFL game last season, an all-time high.

When is enough enough?

Speaking of knowing when to say when, that brings us back to Johnny.

Manziel has been the eye of a Tebowian media storm ever since the draft. See Johnny run (off to Las Vegas to unwind). See Johnny laugh (with hangers-on in countless selfies). See Johnny score (time with the pretty ladies around him).

We just haven’t seen Johnny play (well enough to justify the hype).

I really don’t care what he does off the field as long as no laws are broken. He can tweet 100 pictures daily as far as I’m concerned. If he wants to be the second coming of Joe Namath, hanging out in nightclubs and embracing the playboy lifestyle, so be it.

Whether that image can work for today’s quarterbacks, who are more like CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, is subject for debate. Personally, I don’t think a little more personality at the position would hurt. But it’s all moot if Manziel gets on the field and demonstrates the transcendent playmaking ability that was so dazzling at Texas A&M.

Hearing more won’t bother me if it’s accompanied by seeing more.

Can he be the freewheeling, improvisational gunslinger who reminds us of a young Brett Favre? Can he further the cause of read-option QBs such as Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III? Can he supplant Cleveland’s journeyman starter Brian Hoyer before season’s end?

Let’s hope so. Because that would be fun.

Certainly more fun than a flurry of yellow flags and defenseless DBs.

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