Illegal contact enforcement could have huge impact

The hardest thing to figure about the 2004 season is the impact of the NFL's desire to enforce contact or interference penalties after five yards.

Some people you talk to tell you the impact will be minimal. Those are the same people who misjudged the impact of Charlie Weis's short passing offense on the opening years of the new millennium. The Patriots have won two Super Bowls despite not having marquee wide receivers. I still can't forget calling defensive coordinators before the 2002 season asking about how to defense the Weis's offense. Some pointed out Tom Brady's shaky numbers down the stretch run of 2001 and said that New England's short-passing attack was nothing to worry about. Guess what, other teams copied some of the Patriots ideas and the impact was huge.

The same can be said about tougher enforcement of illegal contact by defensive backs. In many ways, it's the most significant rule adjustment in about a decade but the weird part is the rule hasn't actually changed. Now it's just going to be enforced to the letter of the law.

Competition Committee members Mike Martz, Mike Holmgrem and others were appalled at the number of replays featuring cornerbacks mugging receivers and getting away with it. They had watched it with their own players during the season, but to see the extent of it league-wide was troubling.

To come to the defense of the officials calling the plays, pass interference and illegal contact calls were enforced on a reasonably consistent basis during the regular season. After all, fans don't like to watch yellow flag after yellow flag being thrown. Football is a contact sport no doubt. The 238 interference calls worked out to an average of .93 a game, not even close to the 310 called in fewer games in 1998. Illegal contacts penalties were a manageable 79, .31 a game.

Then came the playoffs. Both championship games became Fantasy Island for cornerbacks. The Patriots cornerbacks squat on receiver routes at about 10 yards and get veryphysical. Colts receivers and tight ends had their jerseys held and their bodies bumped. The situation in Philadelphia wasn't as bad, but Panthers cornerbacks bragged about how physical they were against the Eagles receivers in the NFC Championship.

The Committee asked the league officiating department if officials were calling penalties differently in the playoffs. To their surprise, they received an honest answer. They were. The league knows ratings are at their highest during the playoffs. Fans don't like flags. So, cornerbacks had to clearly violate the rules to draw them.

What was determined was the illegal contact rule was poorly worded. In 1994, the Competition Committee grew tired of cornerbacks mugging receivers and put in new wording to open up the receiver's ability to get away from physical cornerbacks. But the problem was that some of the language that was inserted was contradictory.

In one part you had the new language reading: "If the receiver attempts to evade the defender, the defender cannot chuck him or extend an arm(s) to cut off or hook him, causing contact that impedes and restricts the receiver as the play develops."

But there was also a passage that was inserted for fairness to the cornerback or safety in coverage who banged into a receiver and it read: "Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against the impending contact caused by a receiver."

The first passage above is saying that defenders cannot impede a receiver after five yards if the receiver is trying to evade them, however, the second passage actually gives defenders some leeway to impede receivers.

The idea of the rule was to allow unimpeded running by a receiver after five yards. In sentence No. 1, the defender can use his hands or arms "only" to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver. The second sentence gives the defender a license to use contact.

The extra contact has had a significant impact on passing offenses. Last season was the worst passing numbers in 11 years. The average team passed for 200.45 yards per game, lowest since 1992. The average completion dropped to 11.3, down from 12.1 in 1998.

The intent of the 1994 "chuck" revision was violated. Out goes the word only and into the rule book goes language that tells defenders not to restrict or impede a receiver "in any way." Defenders can get away with incidental contact but not get away with any intentional contact.

The impact of this new emphasis on unimpeded receivers will be huge. Go back to 1994 when the rule was put in. Passing yardage went up a total of 26 yards per game (from 401.2 to 427.2, second highest in the modern era). Average completions went from 11.6 to 11.7. Average attempt went from 5.8 yards to 6. Scoring went from 37.4 to 40.9 per game.

Expect the same types of increases this season. More teams will have the ability to pass for 4,500 yards. Games will be higher scoring.

The downside is that the first month of the season may be ugly because of the number of penalties that will have to be called to break the habits of physical cornerbacks. In 1994, the first year of the "chucking" revision, 117 illegal contact penalties were called. Flags were thrown so often in the first part of that season that officials started feeling sorry for defensive backs. With the gray area of the rules revision, less penalties were called in the second half of the season and only 53 and 50 were called the next two seasons.

It's not out of the question for a record number of illegal contact penalties to be called given the history that more were called in 1994 than in 1995 and 1996 combined.

The rest of the impact will be speculation. Offensive coaches tell you they expect more man-to-man coverage at the line of scrimmage. I don't know if I believe that. There aren't as many cornerback who have the ability to jam a receiver at the line and stay with him after five yards without the ability to grab him after five yards. Receivers are getting to be bigger and strong while the average cornerback hasn't significant grown or gotten that much faster.

Advantage, receiver.

Every few years, the NFL adjusts rules to open up offenses. This new emphasis on calling penalties for extra contact will be huge this season.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.