NFL tells referees to focus on illegal contact fouls in 2022 season

The NFL has issued officiating instructions to referees for the upcoming season: focus on illegal contact fouls.

An illegal contact foul occurs when a defensive player initiates contact with a receiver more than five yards down the field while the quarterback is still in the pocket. The penalty is five yards and an automatic first down.

An NFL spokesperson confirmed to Kevin Seifert of ESPN that the NFL has asked referees to "pay particular attention" to illegal contact fouls in 2022. Seifert also reported that a big drop in illegal contact calls in 2021 led the league to make that foul a focus for referees. Just 36 illegal contact fouls were called in 2021, while the per-year average from 2002-2020 was 97.

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This will almost certainly result in more illegal contact fouls, which appears to be what the NFL wants. And historically that has proved to be the case. The NFL made illegal contact fouls a point of focus in 2004 and 2014, and both times that resulted in a spike of illegal contact fouls throughout those seasons.

Early August is typically the time when the NFL gives directives to its referees. In 2020, the NFL told the refs to focus on "clear and obvious" penalties in an effort to reduce the overall number of penalties. In 2021 they told referees to crack down on taunting, sucking more fun out of the game that millions of people love. And now this year they want refs to focus on illegal contact.

The NFL did issue one other directive on a different type of foul, according to Seifert: roughing the passer. But instead of making it easier for refs to throw the flag for that, they're making it harder. The NFL clarified that "contact to the helmet and below the knee area must be forcible" for a roughing the passer foul to be flagged. Last season it seemed like roughing the passer was called anytime even a fingertip touched the QB, so this point of focus could actually be a welcome development for fans.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 25: A close up view of a referee picking up a yellow flag between the Dallas Cowboys and the Las Vegas Raiders during an NFL game at AT&T Stadium on November 25, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Fans will likely see more flags this season as the NFL has told referees to focus on illegal contact fouls. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)