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    Touchy rule

    Crackdown on defenses offers to give receivers a lift
    Monday, August 09, 2004
    Tony Grossi Plain Dealer Reporter
    Nothing sends ripples of angst throughout the NFL quicker than a drop in offense.

    "Everyone likes to see the ball flung around and point totals high," Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.

    He was speaking of fans as well as high-placed executives in the NFL.

    Show a group of NFL officials a downward trend in points or yards and brace for a rules change. Or in this season's case, a "point of emphasis."

    In March, league officials examined a 9.2 percent drop in passing yards - from 441.6 a game in 1995 to 400.9 last season. The latter total was the smallest in 11 years.

    Coming on the heels of New England's mugging of Indianapolis receivers in the AFC Championship Game, the league declared a crackdown on illegal contact and defensive holding.

    Game officials are touring NFL training camps this summer to emphasize to coaches and players that the rules will be strictly enforced. That means no more pulling, grabbing, chucking, knocking - anything to bump a receiver off his route - 5 yards beyond the line of scrim- mage.

    "It's going to be a huge topic [this summer]," said Mike Pereira, NFL director of officiating.

    "We want the offensive receivers to be able to run an unrestricted route beyond 5 yards, and we don't want him hooked or grabbed when he tries to get off the line of scrimmage."

    Tweaking rules in the NFL is a rite of spring. No professional sports league spends more time analyzing and refining its game than the NFL. The decline in passing yards became the statistical reference for the latest crackdown.

    But the lightning rod surely was the AFC Championship Game in January.

    Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning rode into the game following two consecutive passing performances in the playoffs that were nearly perfect statistically. New England promptly forced four interceptions in a 24-14 drubbing that canceled the coronation of Manning as the league's passing king.

    The reason for Manning's ineffectiveness was a Patriots' defense that physically mauled his receivers - and got away with it.

    "You watched it on television and you thought, 'Gee,' " said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren. "My daughters said, 'Dad, can they do that?' Well, yeah, they did."

    Two plays near the end of the game stood out. Manning was within a touchdown of tying the score at the two-minute warning. On consecutive plays, Manning's passes for tight end Marcus Pollard fell incomplete after New England linebacker Roman Phifer impeded Pollard beyond the 5-yard zone.

    After the game, Pollard made a comment that resonated in the ears of league rule-makers.

    "It's not New England's fault. It's another being's fault," Pollard said, an indirect reference to the game officials. "Those guys did what they had to do. They didn't get called for it. So keep doing it. Hats off to them."

    Colts President Bill Polian repeatedly vented his anger during the game. Several times he banged his fist on a table in the press box. At least one time he shouted, "Throw the flag!"

    After the season, Polian sat on the league competition committee that met several times to rectify what had become lax enforcement of the illegal contact and holding rules.

    "You can't deny that it took place in the championship game," Polian said in March. "You've got guys grabbing shirts and pulling guys down. But that's not the reason for the rules [clarification]. As I said in the committee meeting, that took it to its nadir, to its zenith."

    During analysis of the matter in the off-season, one coach stood out as instrumental in the decline of passing yards - Bill Belichick.

    "The Super Bowl we won [with Green Bay after the 1996 season], we played New England and Bill was the coordinator," Holmgren said. "Same game. Same game."

    In the 2001 season, Belichick was the Patriots' head coach, and his defensive tactics helped orchestrate an epic upset over the pass-happy St. Louis Rams.

    "There was a lot of that going on in that game," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "And after that game, people looked at that game and said that they didn't realize this was permitted. And it's escalated."

    Pereira agreed that NFL coaches copy the tactics of the season's champion, but he stopped short of pinning the blame on Belichick.

    "I don't think any coach is any different than Belichick," he said. "They try to find out how opponents play and how officials officiate. They'll always play the game as they're allowed to play it."

    Pereira blames the league officiating department for letting defensive players get away with more than rules allow.

    "Complacency by our department probably equated to the declining number of fouls and subsequently to the declining pass yardage," he said.

    Coaches are divided on the new crackdown. Offensive-minded coaches, like Holmgren and Martz, applaud it. Defensive-minded coaches believe it's just another attempt by the league to promote offense.

    "The thing that makes me nervous is whenever they want to emphasize rules like this, they're talking about offense and giving the chance to score more points," said Miami coach Dave Wannstedt, whose defense favors an aggressive, physical style.

    Browns coach Butch Davis said, "Obviously, they're trying to continue to get more offense in the game, to get the receivers more vertical releases up the field."

    The result of the crackdown will be more penalty flags thrown - especially in preseason as coaches and players learn to adapt.

    "To me, the game's got too many delays as it is," said Detroit coach Steve Mariucci. "It's got too many stoppages. It's got five TV timeouts every quarter. It's got penalty stops. It's got replay stops. We don't need more penalties, more ways to stop a game. That's where it's headed."

    The last time the NFL conducted a similar crackdown was in 1994. Illegal contact penalties increased from 40 in 1990 to 117 in 1994.

    "Whether or not it creates more fouls is not a concern," Pereira said. "We're just concerned that the game is played the way it's supposed to be, where receivers get to run their routes unobstructed beyond five yards."

    The crackdown only makes the job of cornerbacks more difficult.

    "I don't like how the rules are set up," Browns cornerback Daylon McCutcheon said. "I think it's an unfair advantage for the offense, but there's no point in me or other DBs complaining because we're not going to get it changed."

    To reach this Plain

    Keeping the Rams Nation Talking

  • #2
    Re: Touchy rule

    Maybe we'll get a chance to see if they are going to start cracking down from the get go tonight on MNF. It should be interesting.


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