They flinch. They hold. They line up in the wrong spot. They hit someone where they shouldn't.
The Carolina Panthers have turned into one of the three most-penalized teams in the NFL this season, according to Stats, Inc. The Panthers false-started so often Sunday in Minnesota that they reminded me of my first car, a 1976 Ford Pinto.
That Pinto didn't like cold days, or days that were too hot. If you had ideal conditions – you were parked in the shade, it was 68 degrees and there was a slight breeze from the southwest – it would start on the first try.
Otherwise, watch out.
NFL games are rarely played in ideal conditions, and the Panthers have drawn a dozen penalties in each of their last two games. The first time, against Chicago, that fact was camouflaged by a victory.
Sunday, in a 20-10 loss to Minnesota, the flags were more apparent. The worst one was Jeff King's illegal block in the back on a kickoff return by Jonathan Stewart, which meant about 80 lost yards in field position for Carolina. The guy King blocked likely wouldn't have made the tackle.
But false starts are the meat and potatoes of Panther penalties this season. The Panthers have 13 false-start penalties in three games and 11 in the past two weeks. Tight end Dante Rosario leads Carolina in that category, with four.
Panther center Ryan Kalil took the blame for several of the team's six false-start penalties vs. Minnesota on Monday, saying he couldn't hear Jake Delhomme's signals Sunday and kept snapping the ball late.
Coach John Fox doesn't want to use the Vikings' fearsome pass rush, or the noise in the Metrodome, as an excuse.
“You can say it's what they're doing,” Fox said Monday. “You can say it's the noise. Truth be told, it's typically the pressure of the game.”
Before road games, the Panthers practice trying to get their plays off while a noise simulator blares out a racket that sounds like a jet engine taking off from 10 yards away. Said Fox: “I'm not sure you can make a stadium any louder than the noise we practice in.”
Penalties reflect on coaches as well as players. The color yellow doesn't look good splashed around any football team, which is why it is so rarely used as a uniform color.
In the two games I saw from beginning to end this weekend, I had the misfortune of watching two undisciplined teams celebrating Flag Days. The first one I witnessed in person in Chapel Hill, where Butch Davis' Tar Heels racked up 14 penalties for 121 yards in a 20-17 loss to Virginia Tech.
Then I watched the Panthers on TV and saw more of the same (Carolina drew 12 flags for 67 yards).
It's not that penalties guarantee a loss – Dallas and Green Bay currently join Carolina at the top of the most-penalized list. But it sure makes it harder.
Fox said Monday that avoiding penalties would be stressed all week in practice. “We have to get that fixed,” Fox said. “It's been a problem the last two games. It's something definitely that we will address. I've always been a believer that you get what you emphasize, and it will be emphasized.”
It better be. Because if the Panthers don't get this penalty knot unraveled soon, it will turn into a noose.
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org.