San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Flag football hard to watch

Congratulations to those of you who took rookie referee Ron Torbert in your Referee Fantasy Draft.

It was a gutsy pick, but Torbert and his crew have rewarded your gamble by racing out to an early lead with an average – not a total, an average – of 24 penalties a game through three weeks.

Of course, you can’t count out cagey veteran Tony Corrente, whose crew is nipping at Torbert’s heels with 23 penalties per game. Then there’s old reliable Carl Cheffers, whose gang averages 22.6 fouls and has the single-game record this season, a 33-flag contest involving the 49ers and the Chicago Bears in Week 2.

That game – lucky you, America! – was on national television.

Of course, no one other than perhaps Cheffers’ mom is tuning in to watch the officiating, which makes you wonder why flags have been so ubiquitous through the first few games.

There has been an average of 13.7 accepted penalties entering Thursday’s game, which is about 11/2 more a game than last season and the highest rate since 2005. There have been 14 games this season in which 20 or more penalties have been called.

The result is a disjointed, uninteresting telecast dominated by back judges instead of backfields. During the 49ers-Bears game, one of every four plays was wiped away by a foul.

It’s like asking viewers to sit through a three-hour courtroom drama in which the trial is halted every 30 seconds so the lawyers can have a meeting with the judge. There’s a reason John Grisham hasn’t written a thriller called, “Sidebar,” or why nobody watches C-SPAN: Administration is boring.

“It’s just bad for everyone,” 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite said. “The fans don’t want to watch that. You already have a lot of stoppages with the reviews.”

“The product is terrible,” said longtime fan Scott Nelson, 53, who grew up in Canton, Ohio, the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and now lives in Redondo Beach. “I am so sick of watching a really great defensive play being called back and the whole game being delayed for ‘Defensive holding. Automatic first down.’

“And, of course, if anybody gets emotional and says something and taps face masks with an opposing team member, they get called for taunting. Ray Nitschke would be embarrassed by this NFL.”

Viewers might be able to stomach the storm of flags if they were safety related. No one wants to see cheap shots, like the one Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker delivered on unsuspecting Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, which led to a melee on the sideline. No one wants to see players lying face down on the field with concussions.

But the penalties have been more ticky-tacky. The 49ers lead the NFL with 36 accepted fouls. Their two most common penalties are offensive holding (eight) and illegal contact by the defense (six), which is a point of emphasis by the NFL this season.

Perhaps as a result – an intended result – the league-wide pass completion percentage entering Week 4 was 64.2, the highest in NFL history after three weeks.

More evidence that calls have been marginal: Last season, neither 49ers safety Eric Reid nor linebacker Patrick Willis was called for a single penalty. On Sunday, they combined for five, although one on Willis was declined.

The 49ers certainly aren’t innocent. Willis’ hit on Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was helmet to helmet, the type of play the NFL is trying to eliminate. But other calls were questionable.

Willis and linebacker Dan Skuta were called for back-to-back roughing-the-passer penalties during the Cardinals’ third-quarter drive in which they went on to score a touchdown and take the lead.

Neither player, however, was fined by the league, which is tantamount to an admission that the penalties shouldn’t have been called in the first place.

The message to officials should be: When in doubt, keep the flag in your pocket and do your best to stay in the background.

After all, no one is tuning in to watch refereeing.

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