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TSN: Get ready for historic year for offenses


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Scoring surge: Get ready for historic year for offenses

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Paul Attner /

Posted: 2 days ago

You're about to witness NFL history this season.

Remember how Peyton Manning mangled the Chiefs' defense in last January's playoff game? Chew on this: That offensive deluge could be repeated on a weekly basis this fall against almost any team — and could even be generated by quarterbacks not named Manning. If you like your Sundays filled with gobs of passing yards and chunks of points, then you'll think you've died and gone to football heaven.

Prepare yourself for perhaps the greatest outpouring of throwing and scoring ever. Ravens coach Brian Billick already has warned his players to brace for the oncoming revolution. "It will have as much effect on the game as anything we've done in the past five to 10 years," he told them. For sure, we haven't seen this NFL since the mid-1990s, the last time the league said wait a Dan Marino, these defensive folks are pushing the rules too far and disrupting what is designed to be an offense-dominated sport.

The culprit — or hero, depending on your football preference — behind this change? Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs knows. "Thank you, Ty Law," he says with disgust. Because it was Law and his fellow Patriots maulers who beat up those delicate Colts receivers in last season's AFC title game, igniting the flames that led to this potentially high-octane result.

A review of the final Colts possession reveals at least six downfield penalties that should have been called on New England but weren't. Even Mike Holmgren's daughters, who are casual fans, thought somebody was naughty. After witnessing how rudely the Patriots treated Manning's favorite targets, they asked, "Can they do that?"

The answer from the NFL is no, they can't. The rulebook outlaws chucking after 5 yards, the grabbing of uniforms downfield and the hooking and redirecting of receivers in the secondary. But dastardly defensive coaches have been pushing the rules for the last half-decade, teaching their players to grab a little material here, chuck and push beyond 5 yards there, maybe hook an opponent just slightly if he has you beaten by a step. Some of this hasn't been subtle. And much of it has not been penalized.

The Dolphins are even more prolific practitioners of rules manhandling than the Patriots; hardly anyone within the league who doesn't work in South Florida disagrees with Holmgren's assessment that "the last few years you could call holding on Miami's defensive backs almost every play."

Receivers have become players within a real-life pinball machine, bounced around in the secondary instead of running free, which is what they are supposed to be doing thanks to the league's decision in the late 1970s to outlaw downfield chucks. Last winter, the NFL's competition committee reviewed passing and total yardage statistics from the past 14 years and didn't like the numbers. In 2003, the league produced 400.9 passing yards per game, down almost 24 from the previous season and the lowest average since 1992, when it dipped to 401. Total yards fell from 656.7 in 2002 to 636.6 last season and average points from 43.35 to 41.66.

"I make no apologies," says committee co-chairman Rich McKay, the Falcons' general manager. "Our committee is always looking to make sure the offense is protected and that the skill players are allowed to play the game, because that is part of what makes this game great. If something is out of whack (statistically), we try to react, and this is something we are trying to react to."

React, they did. And hey, what's wrong with a little push from Colts G.M. Bill Polian, whose blood pressure never has readjusted after the Patriots debacle? And what's the harm in a little influence from a tape prepared by Mike Martz, who still has scars from a similar battering New England administered to his receivers in Super Bowl 36? The committee ultimately issued an edict to its officiating department: Start calling these rules as written. No new rules, just a reemphasis of some existing standards.

Beginning this season, game officials have been told to toss a flag every time they see a jersey grabbed and every time they see a receiver chucked beyond 5 yards. Well, not every time, because defensive backs still have some leeway — but the gap has been tightened so much it'll be difficult for them to consistently neutralize the freedom these new emphases will give offensive players as they roam on their routes.

At a meeting of NFL coaches last March, Holmgren showed a tape highlighting pass coverage evils practiced by defenders that no longer will be tolerated. Defensive-minded coaches in the room were ready to revolt. Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil wants all of us to think about the Pro Bowl, where defensive backs are not allowed to press.

"Then you see what happens with a great corner and a great receiver," he says. "The great receiver wins most of the time."

Even with pressing allowed, this will be the Pro Bowl on a weekly basis. Steve Spurrier quit a year too soon; now the NFL will be practicing pitch and catch with sandlot ease.


Based on restrictions on pass coverage, the "old ball coach" may have left the pro game a year early.

(Ezra Shaw / GettyImages)

We've already seen one of the major fallouts from the change. In preseason, flags for defensive holding, illegal contact and pass interference have rained upon game after game, disrupting an already lethargic pace even more and threatening to turn entertainment into a march of penalties. It's reinforcing Lions coach Steve Mariucci's greatest fear.

"To me, the game has too many delays already," he says. "We don't need more penalties, more ways to stop a game. But that is where we are headed."

So, Falcons receiver Pearless Price, what do you think of this new emphasis? Price, smiling one of the biggest smiles you'll ever see: "I pray they won't back off and change their minds. Those guys hold on every play. It is bad. You have the lazy guys who are going to find a way to cheat, and it's been going on for years. Now you will see who really can play cornerback."

So, Texans cornerback Aaron Glenn, your response? "It is a joke. We're at the point where we can't touch these guys, and they are the ones who are doing the pushing and shoving and grabbing. The referees have to take a stand and not call all this. It is ridiculous; it puts refs at a disadvantage where they can't do anything, and it will produce a game of robots. The league has to back off."

Don't tell that to Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officials.

"We started calling all this on the first play of the Hall of Fame game, and it is going to end with the last play of the Super Bowl," he says. "We have been accused of letting up in the past once we got into the regular season, but the committee has told us what they want this season, and it is going to be officiated all the way through."

Keep this in mind. After the 1993 season, the competition committee gave officials similar mandates regarding enforcement of downfield rules. The result: average passing yards rose from 401 in 1993 to 427 in 1994 to 441 in 1995, highest ever in league history. Average yards per game jumped from 621 in 1993 to 635 in 1994 to 657.8 in 1995. And average points increased from 37.4 in 1993 to 40.5 in 1994 to 43 in 1995; only 2002 (43.3) has surpassed that mark since then.

This is a sport involving superior athletes capable of performing at exceptional levels. No one wants this artistry dulled by ticky-tack officiating. So some rules haven't been strictly enforced; instead, over the years, interpretations have popped up, giving game officials guidelines under which to function. In particular, two words — materially affect — have been linked to downfield calls: Does the action by either the offensive or defensive player materially affect the other's ability to finish a play? Was the action enough?

That's how, since 1994, an ever-increasing gray area has sprung up, clouding illegal contact and downfield holding, which are called before the pass is thrown, and pass interference, which is flagged after the ball is in the air. A slight tug of a jersey became a bigger tug, particularly in press coverage; Martz has plays on video in which defenders held on for 10 yards, yet no penalty was called. And the chuck beyond 5 yards? If the receiver didn't seem to be knocked off his route, if he didn't break stride, then it became a no-call even 8 or 9 yards into the secondary. So defensive backs learned to "squat," or plant themselves, in the path of receivers, either drawing contact or sliding as the receiver moved, using hands or body or both to nudge and redirect the offensive player. It became routine in zones; before passing off the receiver to a teammate, the defender reached out and slightly shoved his opponent. More and more of these actions were unpenalized.

"The more physical you're allowed to be at corner downfield, then the less skill you need, and then you don't have to pay those corners all the (big) money anymore," says Martz. "Things have just gotten so permissive. The rule says after 5 yards you can't hold him up. Now you actually must use the skills that you've been given to cover the guy."

That's simple for an offensive coach to say.

"It is easy to play receiver, but it's a bear to play defensive back," says Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. "Just don't penalize my players for doing one of the most difficult things at the highest level of pro sports. I have no problem with (penalizing) the jersey grabbing. We can stop that. But lots of times, from 10 to 12 yards out, a defensive back will walk in toward the receiver and then start backpedaling. My issue is, if I maintain my space, I have a right to that space, and if the receiver runs into me with intent to contact, the foul should be on him. But it is called against us too much, and that is unfair. I could play receiver right now and get a penalty every time and move the chain, I guarantee you. And that is not right."

Pereira says his officials will look at games differently this year.

"It will be like basketball, which officiates defense first," he says. "It will be like block/charge. If the defensive back is set and doesn't slide and the offensive guy deliberately runs into the guy, then it's against him. But defensive backs have been squatting at 7 yards for a 9-yard out and colliding with the guy before he can make his cut. The rule says you can't impede, restrict or redirect the offensive guy in anyway. If you choose to play that kind of squat-and-collision defense and you initiate the contact, we are going to call it."

Those defensive backs and linebackers who have been surviving by holding and chucking even just a tad are in for some kind of hurt.

"I've seen a deterioration in technique as guys have gotten away with more," says Colts coach Tony Dungy, "and they will be affected." Springs has an answer. "You just have to have good technique, really sharpen it," he says. "Guys are going to have to be disciplined. It will force us to be on top of our game. Either that, or it will be either more flags or more touchdowns this year."

Falcons coach Jim Mora says defenders "will have to be more artful around the ball and the receiver. And the shorter defensive backs will be exposed. They won't be able to use their hands, and now receivers will get better separation and quarterbacks can see them better."

Coaches are mixed about whether it will be more difficult to play lots of man coverage, but it certainly will affect cover 2, which has become the league's preeminent secondary coverage. In that scheme cornerbacks have been cheating most, chucking beyond 5 yards, and safeties have been riding and tugging and redirecting extensively downfield.

Of course, receivers are ready to party. Teams have been searching frantically for big receivers who could stand up against the increasingly physical play in the secondary. This will make them even more dangerous.

"Do you think anyone can stop me going across the middle if they can't touch me?" asks Terrell Owens of the Eagles. "That's all they've been doing for years, holding and grabbing. It's been ridiculous."

But this new emphasis also could herald the return of Fun Bunch-type guys, the quick, little receivers who have been thumped and trampled almost into extinction. Now, they can scamper around, unimpeded by these defensive bullies. You also should expect a major difference in how inside receivers are covered, particularly tight ends, who have been battered by linebackers and hammered by safeties such as the Patriots' Rodney Harrison and the Cowboys' Roy Williams.

Billick, who has spent his first five years with the Ravens trying to fashion a consistent passing game, should be overjoyed with the new emphasis. But he is conflicted. His current team depends heavily on the running game and stout defense. What's a coach to do?

"If your team is built on offense as the primary weapon, life is good right now," he says. "To those who play great defense and run it, life is a whole lot different, and not for the better. They can't take this so far that you can't play the game on defense. I think everyone is concerned about the ramifications, and we have to find that working ground where we can reinvigorate the passing game and scoring but not encumber the game in a way that it is counterproductive."

Tell that to Rams wideout Torry Holt. "I think a whole lot of receivers will have huge years this season," he says. "Defense has been winning in the secondary for some years now. Nothing wrong with it being our turn now."

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I'm not sure what the big deal is? It's not even a new rule.

The rule has always been in place that you can't touch the receiver after 5 yards.

You want to talk about consistency?

How many times have we seen replays with contact - incidental or not - where even the broadcasters are saying "I don't know about that... sometimes they call it and sometimes they don't."

Now you eliminate that altogether. You touch the receiver... it's a penalty.

It's the way it always has been... and it should've been enforced to the rule when it first came out.

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I am tired of all these CB crying... boo hoo it's not fair.

The rule has been on the books for years, they have just gotten away with it. It is no more unfair than it is for OL not being able to grab, hold, pulling on DL jersey to impede their progress. Nor are they allowed to go down field on pass plays to block for the recievers..... The Refs have NOT slacked off calling those penalties.

The problem is that many of these high priced babies are NOT worth their money, and have to use sneaky tactics to succeed against most good WRs, and they know that after a few games, many of them will be unemployed and replaced with talented CBs.

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