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Week 5 preview: Is this flag football?

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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 
Every time we think the pansification of American Tackle Football has reached a point of absurdity beyond which it cannot possibly venture, the great game takes another step in the wrong direction. The Ravens were hit with two roughing-the-passer calls in their 27-21 loss to the Patriots in Week 4 that were even more ridiculous than the two laughable roughing-the-passer calls the Patriots were hit with in Week 1 against the Bills. The combined contact of the game-changing 15-yard penalties on Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs brought to mind a lepidopterist handling a butterfly.

LET THEM PLAY

John Lynch If anyone feels the pain of confused defenders trying to figure out the NFL QB protections rules, it's NFL on FOX analyst John Lynch, as he said in a Wednesday chat.
We get it. The league wants to protect the quarterback. But isn't that why he — like all the other players on the field — is wearing a helmet and pads? That protection seems almost surplus to requirements when every love tap starts getting flagged. Defenders can't go high — contact between hand and helmet or helmet and helmet is an automatic flag — and can no longer go low. The window for where a pass rusher can drill the QB is narrowing to the point where every hit your team puts on a QB is followed by a breathless five-count hoping it didn't elicit a flag for being too high, too low or simply too hard. The officials' willingness to penalize the most negligible contact on the quarterback has also given rise to the regrettable post-pass pleading that almost every QB engages in to try to get the flag. Never has the spectacle been more evident than when Brady was grazed by Suggs around the knees and turned immediately to referee Ron Winter and began his lobbying. Winter fell for it and the flag came out. The sequence prompted former teammate Rodney Harrison to admonish Brady to "Take off the skirt." It was a dig and a demand that could be extended to the competition committee as well. A lamentable 2006 roughing the passer call by Mike Carey on then-Bengal Justin Smith against the Bucs had established a new extreme of cottony softness, prompting Marvin Lewis to say, "I guess you have to cuddle him to the ground."
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Lewis was joking. Three years later, it's no joke. New prohibitions seem to arise every week. Sometimes refs appear to be making them up on the spot. You can't launch into the quarterback. You can't throw the quarterback to the ground. You can't "give the business" to the quarterback. The bubble wrap is also spreading out of the pocket to other parts of the field. Defenders are told they cannot hit a "defenseless" receiver, a tough calculation to make when you're flying to the ball hoping to break up a 3rd-and-10. The officials are now asked to be forensic pathologists at a split-second crime scene and determine in the blink of an eye if a receiver was totally defenseless or only semi-defenseless. When the Cowboys' Roy Williams got lit up by the Broncos D.J. Williams — on yet another hospital ball thrown by Tony Romo — it was the kind of clean hit that has more and more frequently been flagged just for the sheer, perfect force of it. It wasn't flagged. Hallelujah. The play was a reminder of how great tackle football can be when they just let them play.

Worst Week of Sleep Leading Up to Kickoff

In most years, the days leading up to a matchup with the Bengals would be a time for visions of sugar plums and huge fantasy days to be dancing in a wide receiver's head. But poor Mark Clayton can't be having sweet dreams this week. Not only are the Bengals no pushovers this year — allowing four fewer points so far this season than the mighty Ravens — but Clayton is the biggest reason Baltimore is not undefeated. His pure drop on fourth down against the Patriots kept the Ravens from a first-and-goal and four shots at the winning score.

Hottest Hot Seat

Jim Zorn not only survived the week, he momentarily moved off the hot seat and into a tie for third (last) in the NFC East with the Dallas Cowboys. Which brings us to this week's roasting derriere. Coming into the season, when you looked at the Dallas schedule for the first month — Bucs, Broncos on the road, Giants, Panthers at home — you had to figure the worst the Cowboys could be would be 3-1. Well, they are 2-2. All Wade Phillips has been able to deliver is two wins against two winless teams. Even if they beat the Chiefs this week, the Cowboys won't have a shot at their first victory over a team with a W under its belt until Oct. 25 against the Falcons. On 4th-and-goal in the final minute of last week's loss to the Broncos, Tony Romo threw to fourth wide receiver Sam Hurd against Hall of Fame corner Champ Bailey. It would be hard to argue that the Cowboys look like a well-coached team right now.

Where the Bad Call Bar Is Set

As tempting as it may be to set the bar at a new NFL low with those candy-ass roughing-the-passer penalties against the Ravens last week, the new worst calls of the season did not happen in professional football. They happened in the SEC. The two 15-yard celebration penalties against Georgia and LSU at the end of that otherwise thrilling SEC game represented the worst officiating over-reaches I've ever seen. Should kids lift weights all summer, practice all week and not be able to show the slightest joy when they score touchdown? Way to become the story, stripes. Disgraceful.

Distraction of the Week

An NFL linebacker often has to have his head on a swivel. Especially if Hines Ward is anywhere on the field. Ask Keith Rivers. Linemen, backs, tight ends, receivers can all be assigned to block a linebacker. But he's probably not looking to get blindsided from upstairs. When San Diego GM A.J. Smith described the Chargers defense as "soft and bewildered" he didn't specifically call out Shawne Merriman. But he may as well have. When you've got three solo tackles and no sacks heading into Week 5 of the NFL season feel free to take offense. And Merriman did. "That's an opinion of a person," Merriman responded defensively (ironic, I know, since he's provided so little defense this season). "And it's not needed." That "person?" He's kind of your "boss." And if you think your coach is your boss, A.J. Smith is the guy who fires your boss when you don't make plays.

The Week in Favre

When you assess Brett Favre's 24-for-31, 271-yard, 3-TD, 135.3 QB rating vivisection of the Packers, the numbers alone don't tell the whole story. You also have to weigh two other factors: The Vikings' receivers are mid-tier at best and Green Bay corners Al Harris and Charles Woodson, both '08 Pro Bowlers, are still considered top drawer (though maybe not much longer). Favre was so precise in dismantling his former team it almost didn't matter if his receivers got any separation at all. If he doesn't do something worth making fun of in the next couple of weeks this segment is going on hiatus.

Raider Melodrama of the Week

Assuming former assistant coach Randy Hanson's broken jaw was the result of some physical altercation with head coach Tom Cable it seems unlikely that Cable can avoid some kind of sanction from no-nonsense Sheriff Roger Goodell. Which begs the question, when you've plucked your head coach from obscurity, where do you go to find his interim replacement? Deep obscurity? The guy with the headset standing on the sidelines watching the scattershot ducks thrown by JaMarcus Russell is actually much less of a drag on the Raiders than the bust they have under center. Oakland has averaged a league-low 10.5 points per game this seasons as they embark on a four-game stretch against the Giants, Eagles, Jets and Chargers. If Cable could choose when he serves his suspension, he might want to volunteer to take the next four games off.

Victory that Will Spark the Biggest Overreaction

The Colts will beat the moribund Titans to improve to 5-0. And everyone will be saying they are the team to beat again, just as they were in 2006. But no serious contender — no team with a chance to win three straight playoff games — could let the Miami Dolphins keep the ball away from them for 46 minutes. The four teams Indy has beaten this season are a combined 5-10. You heard it here first. The Colts are not that good.

L.A. Awaits. Franchise Relocation Watch

The Rams strengthened their hold on the lead in this category with a decisive 35-point loss at San Francisco. Now comes word that Rush Limbaugh is part of a group bidding for the Rams. Just when you wondered how things could get any worse for Rams fans, imagine never being able to lure a black free agent to town or re-sign any of your few black stars. It's not a certainty. Most players just follow the money. But the combination of a lousy franchise and an owner who has said some, er, inflammatory things on the issue of race could make ol' St. Lou a tough sell for many players.

Injury Roulette of the Week

It's been understood since the preseason that any one of the delicate Faberge eggs lining up anywhere in the Patriot backfield could go down at any moment. Tom Brady has been able to stay upright. Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris are both healthy but are averaging a sickly 2.9 and 3.2 yards per carry, respectively. Now comes news that the first egg of the season has cracked. Fred Taylor, New England's leading rusher, underwent ankle surgery and could miss the rest of the season.

Biggest Fantasy Headache

Is there anything worse than having comparable players at a position and scouring the sports sites to see which one to start, only to have the other guy light it up? Nagging injuries that lead to gametime decisions can be brutal, but I've had to spend this whole week thinking about Matt Schaub at Arizona or Ben Roethlisberger at Detroit. It's a coin flip. On the plus side, my decision to be the last guy in my league to draft a QB has been vindicated as both Schaub and Big Ben are pretty much in everybody's top 5 this week and Roethlisberger is fourth overall among QBs after four games. Roger Rotter has Roethlisberger No. 2 and Schaub No. 5 this week. I'm going with you, Rog. And your advice had better not be the difference between a W and an L.
Tagged: Brett Favre, Shawne Merriman, JaMarcus Russell, Keith Rivers, Bengals, Sam Hurd, Cowboys, Broncos, Packers, Titans, Colts, Tony Romo, Raiders, Chiefs, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Mark Clayton, Champ Bailey, Jets, 49ers, Panthers, Charles Woodson, Ravens, Steelers, Justin Smith, Chargers, Terrell Suggs, Al Harris, Texans, Haloti Ngata, Roy Williams, Hines Ward, Sammy Morris, Ben Roethlisberger, Fred Taylor, Matt Schaub, Laurence Maroney, D.J. Williams

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