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Officiating Changes Could Increase Entertainment Value of AFL

Brian Beaudry
Sunday January 18, 2015

The Arena Football League has gotten too far away from being as entertaining as it could be, and I’ve come up with one simple change that would improve the game experience greatly.

Refs: Swallow those whistles, keep the flags off the ground, and let the game keep moving.

The NFL averages roughly 13.6 assessed penalties per game, according to data at, a number which many find exasperating as they watch, claiming they can’t enjoy a good play without looking for the flag, assuming it’s all coming back. Kirk Goldsberry wrote about this earlier this week over at Grantland.

The AFL, which has long marketed itself on bringing a more fun version of the sport, has officials that assess 16.5 penalties per game despite having a similar number of plays, roughly 27 percent more penalties than their NFL counterparts who are already considered too flag-happy.

Penalties take away from the flow of the game – a game with 20 assessed penalties, assuming about 30 seconds for each stoppage while the refs confer to make the call, announce the call, re-spot the ball, and the next play begins, leaves fans sitting in their seats watching referees for 10 minutes. Game analysis shows that that’s about how long the players are actually involved in plays on the field. We’re literally seeing as much of the referees as we are football.

The AFL has done a great job removing many of the most boring plays of football – punts, fair catches, kneel downs, etc. There is an incredible amount of talent taking the field in every game across the league each week. Every play is a play that can end in a touchdown, and that brings a lot of excitement to each play. But with 18.9 percent of all plays ending with a penalty assessed, you’re far more likely to see a referee announcement after a play than you are a score, and no one comes to watch the refs.

I have a few suggestions for some rule changes that I think would benefit everyone:

Delay of game: I get that it has to be enforced in order to actually keep play moving. But as it stands now, the delay of game penalty delays the game far more than just ignoring the penalty would have. If there’s a receiver in motion when the clock hits zero, let’s agree to say the offense is close enough. If we really cared about preserving clock, we wouldn’t let it run during extra point attempts.

Heck, since the game clock starts after a delay of game, you’re allowing an offense to kill even more time by taking delay of game penalties than the 1-2 seconds extra you might let them burn. Let’s ignore as many of these as possible, especially before there’s one minute remaining in the half.

Jack in the Box: Why is the five-yard box necessary? If the Jack wants to leave the box, he’s leaving the middle of the field open for quarterbacks to run for significant yardage.  If he stays close, then it’s similar to what they’re doing already. It seems like a rule that doesn’t bring anything to the game. Maybe the freedom will encourage running quarterbacks to enter a league that’s having problems coaching prototypical quarterbacks into successful AFL quarterbacks.

Illegal rush: It seems like a rule that exists to make the sport unique, but just causes rookie penalties. With a league that only offers a two-week training camp to teach new people the game, the niche rules like that only create penalties that don’t serve the fans. Why can’t the Mac run around the tackles? It shouldn’t be difficult for an offensive line to communicate or switch blocks – the centers and guards already do it. This should help make linemen more appealing to other leagues as well – in the other leagues, it’s not just all about one-on-one battles; you have to be able to work as a team on the lines. Making rules like these will also increase competitive balance, as it will take rookies less time to get acclimated to the game and will help teams that have trouble acquiring all the AFL veterans.

Eliminating those three oft-called, but unnecessary rules could eliminate a couple minutes of face time for referees, move the game along faster, and make teams earn their first downs. It also makes the sport more appealing to fans tuning in for some football – it’s frustrating seeing rules that don’t seem to have a purpose.

Let’s simplify the rulebook and clean up the turf – there are way too many flags.

For an infographic with more information about penalties in the AFL, including which officials call the most and which cities saw the most, visit my blog, Wrong Way Sports.

Brian Beaudry has been both an intern and a Director of Communications within the AFL and occasionally provides analysis of the league and the Portland Thunder as an Oregon resident. He maintains a blog, Wrong Way Sports, and you can reach him with research or graphic design suggestions on Twitter at @BeaudryPDX.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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