There are three types of penalties.
One is the blatantly obvious. It's the beaten lineman who grabs the defensive pass rusher and pulls them to the ground to prevent their quarterback from eating mud. It's the cornerback who doesn't play the pass and just hits the intended target before the ball reaches the receiver. It's offsides and false starts and everyone knows you broke the rules and you buck up and move on.
There are non-calls. The refs from the Packers game loved to play this card. It's calling 12 men on the field when the Patriots haven't substituted and still only have 11 on the grass. It's a picked up flag when Rob Gronkowski is bear hugged by Luke Kuechly because, eh, it's at the Panthers stadium and I would very much like to get to my car in one piece. Everyone hates the refs for inserting themselves into the game and then just taking themselves out; mistakes or not, it's an eye roll or an expletive from those watching.
And then there's the wildly inconsistent rulings that no one understands.
Like, what's a catch in the end zone? Is it a touchdown if a player makes a football move? Or what if the ball comes loose when they step out of bounds? What if they intended receiver is a Capricorn and it's a full moon?
Or, if an offensive lineman holds a defensive end trying to turn the corner, and everyone sees it happen, but the refs still don't throw a flag, did it even happen at all? (yes)
Or maybe with regards to illegal pick plays that only Brandon LaFell seems to be called for violating, much to the chagrin of Danny Amendola's receiving stats. Why do one group of refs call it differently from others?
And then there's this whole convoluted mess with receiver contact. Supposedly offensive players can be called for it, but as Julian Edelman showed, if you run into a defender you can just act outraged and confused and a ref will quickly throw a flag in support. Because, who the hell knows what a penalty is anyways?
So here are two plays from the game that show why the rule book needs to be fixed to remove as much ref input as possible.
0% chance that Revis gets called for the same flag that Browner gets on the Packers opening drive (far side): pic.twitter.com/ESWcUAKnMG— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 4, 2014
Glad Patriots-Packers game didn't come down to a penalty. But ref consistency is maddening: pic.twitter.com/xWrmq7jehT— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 4, 2014
The first play is a penalty on Browner for defensive holding. Literally every single defensive back will put their hand on the receiver's hip to keep contact as they go through their routes. If every defender was called as tightly as this play, Darrelle Revis would be the most penalized cornerback in the league. This is a call that's made only because refs are told to watch out for that Mr. Brandon Browner and his mean grabby hands.
Defensive holding is supposed to be when " a player grasps an eligible offensive player (or his jersey) with his hands, or extends an arm or arms to cut off or encircle him." (8.4.6). The fact that Jordy Nelson stops his route inside of Browner and then turns to head into Browner, does not mean that Browner tried to encircle Nelson. It means that Browner had the right of way and Nelson ran into him. Note that the ref is throwing the flag as soon as Nelson pirouettes, so it's not for something Browner does after the image ends.
It's a bad penalty on a third down that gives the Packers a fresh set. If refs are going to be calling it this closely, then there's zero reason for this to be an automatic first down call. None. But this is the issue: refs have far too much power to make these bad calls.
As it's been shown, penalties cost a team an average of one point per drive. Penalties on third down cost the defense nearly 2 points.
So when it comes to the second play, where Rob Gronkowski is clearly contacted on the shoulder as he tries to cut back in to the ball, the ref on the goal line doesn't call anything. This is clearly a more impactful contact by a defensive back than Browner's non-defensive hold- and let me be clear I feel this type of play should be a non-call.
Why? Because the wording for the rule of pass interference defines this as a missed call. The contact on the shoulder prevented Gronk from getting back to the ball, and/or the safety's arm was across Gronk's chest which, according to the rule, is not permissible even if the defender is playing the ball.
But you know what? If I'm a Packers fan, I'm saying that Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix did absolutely nothing wrong on this play and that the contact was incidental and didn't have an effect on the play. And that's a completely fine argument.
The issue is that there is and will always be different interpretations on what "affects a play" and forces the ref to play rocket surgeon to determine what a player's limitations are for making plays. This puts the onus on the ref to make the decision and that leads to tremendous inconsistency across refs. The ref at the goal line clearly didn't think the safety impeded Gronk, which is totally fine. That's why I support the non-call.
But the fact that the same exact ref can call Browner for defensive holding on the first drive, but not this defensive contact on the final drive? That means that individual judgment from the ref holds too much power over the course of the game.
As easy solution would be to remove automatic first down penalties. If the penalty yards warrant a first, then they get it. If not, apply the yards and re-do the down. Huge pass interference fouls shouldn't even be a thing, anyways, and defensive pass interference should max out at 15 yards or the spot of the foul, whatever is less. This would greatly reduce the impact of refs, especially if they wish to continue with the focus on defensive contact (while still egregiously ignoring offensive contact and holding).
The rulebook has become so convoluted that it's nearly impossible to follow to the exact letter. Instead of providing more power to the refs, the competition committee should try and strip the refs of as many judgment calls as possible. It's possible to protect the players on the field and provide a presentable product for the fans to enjoy.