By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
During a media presentation three months ago in Macomb, Ill., referee Bernie Kukar referred to the NFL's new point of emphasis on illegal contact as the Mike Martz Rule.

It was Martz, after all, who pressed for a stricter interpretation of the league rule on illegal contact last offseason.

But it could just as easily be called the Patriots Rule. Because without New England's ultra-aggressive play in pass coverage, officials wouldn't be looking more closely at contact between wide receiver and defender more than five yards downfield.

Such contact, unless deemed incidental, is supposed to result in a five-yard penalty and an automatic first down. By making illegal contact a point of emphasis last March, the league wasn't changing the rule. It was just saying the rule would be more strictly enforced.

At the midway point of the NFL season, has that really been the case?

By the numbers - a qualified "yes."

Defensive holding calls are up slightly, with 96 such penalties called eight weeks into this season, compared with 90 such penalties at a similar juncture in 2003.

Illegal contact calls are up markedly, with 72 such penalties so far this season compared to 32 after eight weeks of the 2003 season. That's more than double the number of illegal contact penalties, but it still means that only nine such penalties are being called - each week - throughout the NFL.

And some Rams will tell you that in recent weeks, officials have started to look the other way at illegal contact, keeping their flags in their pockets. Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce, for one, tactfully suggests that NFL officiating crews take a brief refresher course on the rule and how it's supposed to be enforced.

"They're calling it, but I think they need to have another meeting on it," Bruce said. "Not too long of a meeting, they just need to continue to remind them."

Then, hinting strongly at a lack of consistency in calling illegal contact, Bruce added: "They're not going to let the offense get by with the (illegal) motion rule. They're real consistent on calling that. So they need probably another two-minute meeting (on illegal contact)."

In Game 5 against Seattle, Bruce was clearly shoved out of bounds in the back of the end zone by a Seahawks defender, but there was no flag, even though an official was very close to the play.

"He was standing there, and he should've seen it," Bruce said. "He didn't throw the flag."

With Bruce pushed out of the play, quarterback Marc Bulger threw a desperation pass to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, whose miraculous touchdown catch jump-started the Rams' fourth-quarter comeback in a 33-27 overtime victory.

In the Rams' most recent game, Oct. 24 against Miami, wide receiver Torry Holt appeared to be bumped off his route by a Dolphins defender (Reggie Howard), but there was no flag. Bulger's poorly thrown pass was intercepted in the end zone, a critical turning point in the game.

Holt declined an interview request for this story.

In any event, both of the aforementioned plays are prime examples that officials might not be watching for illegal contact as closely as they were earlier this season.

"I think initially it was really enforced very well," Martz said. "I think it's kind of slid back a little bit in some respects - a little bit more permissive."

In his push to make illegal contact a point of emphasis, Martz said, "the biggest concern was just the flagrant grabbing, and jostling down the field. That was never tolerated - never tolerated - up until just a few years ago. And then for some reason it became more and more permissive. I don't think anybody wants to see us going back to that situation again."

Illegal contact first became an issue for the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI three years ago against New England. In the aftermath of the Patriots' 20-17 upset victory, much was made of New England's change of defensive strategy in that game as opposed to a regular-season matchup with the Rams in Foxboro, Mass., 2 1/2 months earlier.

One of the biggest strategic adjustments, the Rams claim, "was all the grabbing and clutching" by New England pass defenders, according to Bulger.

"That was the adjustment," Bruce concurred. "And it was noticeable. I put it on myself for not realizing the type of game that was going to be played. I really didn't realize it until like the third quarter - that the referees were going to allow what was going on to go on."

Bulger said tape study of Patriots defenders this season doesn't show as much clutching and grabbing.

"I don't think it's as bad as 2001," Bulger said. "They have good corners, and sometimes when guys are covered a lot, people complain. Again, there's a fine line."

For his part, New England coach Bill Belichick says the Patriots aren't doing anything differently in pass defense this season.

"The rule hasn't been changed, so it really hasn't affected what we teach," he said. "It's legal to jam the guy within five yards of the line of scrimmage. And it's not legal to jam them more than five yards downfield. That's the way it's been, that's the way we coached it. That's the way it still is."

Pittsburgh wide receiver Plaxico Burress, for one, begs to differ. The illegal contact rule, "doesn't apply to them, that's for sure," Burress said prior to last week's Steelers-Patriots game. "They're arm-barring guys out of bounds. Ty Law's pushing guys 10-15 yards downfield, stopping in front of guys and bumping them when they're 20 yards downfield. So I think it applies to everybody else but them."

Illegal contact in the NFL

A defender is not permitted to chuck or extend an arm or to hook the receiver if it re-directs, restricts or impedes the receiver in any way. However, incidental contact (not intentional) is permissible. . . .This rule will be strictly enforced. Defensive players who initiate contact beyond five yards by use of the squat or collision techniques will be penalized.