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Labriola on over-officious zebras, finding freaks

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Rick Gosselin has covered the NFL for 44 years, has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter since the 1980s, and was the 2004 winner of the Dick McCann Award for “long and distinguished reporting on professional football.” Gosselin also is something of a go-to guy when it comes to NFL officials and officiating, often providing in-depth statistics of the different crews based on the numbers and types of penalties those crews call, etc.

• So when he tweeted earlier in the week: “There were 255 penalties assessed during the opening weekend of the 2018 NFL season. That's the second-most flag-filled weekend since 2007. There were an average of 15.9 penalties for 140.8 yards assessed per game last weekend,” you can take it to the bank.

• And to put those numbers in perspective: In the 16 games played, each had at least 10 penalties. Nine of the games had 15 or more. Four of the games had between 19 and 26. As a reminder, those numbers reflect only accepted penalties, and the 255 were 47 more than Week 1 last year and 69 more than Week 1 10 years ago.

• In Pittsburgh and throughout Steelers Nation, the Steelers’ dozen penalties in Cleveland against the Browns were attributed – as they typically are – to a lack of discipline that’s then blamed on Coach Mike Tomlin. But apparently there was some sort of league-wide epidemic of no discipline during Kickoff Weekend.

• Or maybe the zebras were a little too flag-happy. Or a lot too flag-happy.

• Based on figures reported by The Nielsen Company, “The NFL on CBS” on Sunday, Sept. 9 recorded its best opening NFL singleheader rating in three years, with an average overnight household rating/share of 10.6/22, which is up 23 percent from 2017 in the metered markets. Pittsburgh was the top metered market last weekend, with Steelers at Browns earning a 42.3 rating and a 70 share.

• If the NFL is interested in maintaining those gains in viewership, it would be wise to reign in its officials a bit, because an AVERAGE of 16 penalties a game is bound to cut into those numbers because nothing makes a game unwatchable more quickly than over-officiousness. And this isn’t about “leading with the helmet” penalties or the other infractions related to player safety. It’s about the ticky-tacky stuff that happens on every play.

• I was in Cleveland for Steelers-Browns, and so that’s the game with which I’m most familiar, and one situation from that game to be used as an example of way too flag-happy came when the Steelers had a second-and-goal at the 2-yard line. James Conner scored on the next play, but that was nullified by a holding penalty on Maurkice Pouncey. Ben Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass to Justin Houston on the next snap, but that was nullified by an illegal use of hands penalty on Marcus Gilbert.

• The Steelers scored for a third straight time on the next play – a 22-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown – but if it’s going to be the kind of game where the zebras are sticklers for the rules, how did the Browns get away with what happened in the final minute of overtime?

• To recap: Following a Britton Colquitt punt, the Steelers took possession at their own 26-yard line with 1:17 left and one timeout. On the first play of the drive, Roethlisberger completed a 12-yard pass to Brown for a first down at the 38-yard line with the clock ticking. Browns safety Damarious Randall apparently got a cramp during the play, and he tired to call a timeout, but since Cleveland was out of timeouts in overtime – each team gets two – the Browns sideline motioned for him to go down to the ground.

• The Browns were out of timeouts, the Steelers had the ball and were in their hurry-up offense trying to get into field goal range to win the game, and Randall, after trying to call a timeout his team didn’t have, went to the turf on instructions from his sideline. That’s a penalty, or at least it’s supposed to be, most likely unsportsmanlike conduct, which is a 15-yard assessment that would have put the ball at the Cleveland 47-yard line with about 52 seconds left.

• If Cleveland had possession of the ball, the infraction could have been handled with a run-off of the game clock, but since the Browns were on defense, it should have been a penalty, especially in light of the fact Randall had to come off the field for only one play before returning to his position. So clearly it wasn’t a significant injury.

• There were a lot of other questionable calls/non-calls in that game – such as the punt that hit Nick Chubb’s helmet and should’ve then been a fumble recovered by Sean Davis, which was clear from watching the replay because the ball was spinning one way and then when it got close to Chubb’s helmet it started spinning the other way, which defies physics if it didn’t hit something – but what’s truly unforgiveable is when the zebras don’t know the rules and/or their jobs.

• Here’s an example: in punting situations, one of the referee’s responsibilities is to make sure the punter is not roughed and then after the ball is away he is responsible for tracking the ball in case it’s shanked out of bounds. Standing behind the punter, which is where he’s supposed to be, allows the referee to have an angle on where the ball crosses the sideline, and then he’s to help the official on that sideline spot the ball correctly.

• On fourth-and-3 from the Browns 26-yard line with 4:35 left in overtime, Britton Colquitt shanked a punt. Shanked it badly. But instead of being in the proper position to do his job, referee Shawn Smith can be seen in the all-22 video jogging down the field for some unknown reason, apparently unaware of where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to see.

• After some Keystone Kops maneuvering, the Steelers were given the ball at their own 45-yard line, but that placement was a pure guess, and from inside the stadium it didn’t look like much of a good guess.

• Regardless, the game ended in a tie, and the only meaningful thing to obsess over at this point is that Myles Garrett is a very, very good player, and he’s going to be a handful for every team that plays the Browns for close to a decade. And he’s exactly the kind of dynamic difference-maker teams always are looking for in every draft, and history tells you that dynamic defensive playmakers – the freaks, as they’re known in scouting circles – mostly are gone by the middle of the first round.

• As evidence, here is a look at the last nine draft classes, because a ninth-year pro is a player who’s closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning. Understand that some of these older players aren’t what they once were, often because of the toll injuries have taken on their bodies. All of the players listed below were picked in the top half of the first round:

• 2010: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Gerald McCoy, S Eric Berry, CB Joe Haden, S Earl Thomas, DE Jason Pierre-Paul.

• 2011: OLB Von Miller, CB Patrick Peterson, DE J.J. Watt, DE Robert Quinn.

• 2012: ILB Luke Kuechly, DT Fletcher Cox.

• 2013: None.

• 2014: DE Jadaveon Clowney, DE Khalil Mack, LB Anthony Barr, DT Aaron Donald, ILB Ryan Shazier. (NOTE: ILB C.J. Mosley was pick No. 17 by the Baltimore Ravens.)

• 2015: DE Leonard Williams, OLB Vic Beasley. (NOTE: CB Marcus Peters was pick No. 18 by the Kansas City Chiefs, and he only lasted that long because of some serious issues during his college career at Washington.)

• 2016: DE Joey Bosa, CB Jalen Ramsey.

• 2017: DE Myles Garrett, CB Marshon Lattimore

• 2018: (Potentially) CB Denzel Ward, OLB Bradley Chubb, LB Roquan Smith, CB Minkah Fitzpatrick, LB Tremaine Edmunds.

• Even I could put together a pretty good defense picking 11 from that collection of talent.

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