WRs finding more room to operate

Late in the first quarter of last week's streak-busting victory over New England, coach Bill Cowher briefly departed the boundary of the field and moved to the bench area for a typically passionate discussion with the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers corps.

As documented by the omnipresent NFL Films cameras, Cowher emphatically instructed the trio of Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El to keep running routes as aggressively as possible and to encourage contact in the Patriots secondary. "If there's contact, they'll call it," said Cowher, referring to the re-emphasis this season on contact by defenders outside of the five-yard legal zone. "Believe me, they'll call it."

Ironically, a New England secondary ravaged by injuries to starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, and whose mugging of Indianapolis receivers in last season's AFC championship game precipitated the focus on the illegal contact rule in 2004, wasn't flagged for a single penalty. That said, Cowher's characterization of the new awareness of game officials for enforcing the rule, for the most part, was on-target.

There remain some teams who still feel their receivers aren't being provided the degree of freedom in the secondary that the league promised this spring -- the Philadelphia staff this week dispatched a videotape to NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira suggesting their receivers were abused by the Baltimore Ravens secondary last Sunday -- but the numbers from the first eight weeks of the campaign indicate the zebras are giving pass catchers a lot more room in which to operate.

Over the first eight weeks, there have been 68 illegal contact penalties, as opposed to 30 at the same point in 2003, a dramatic increase of 167 percent. Defensive holding calls, most of them in the secondary, have increased as well. Pereira noted this week that, under the laissez faire guidelines (French for, essentially, "hands off"), there have been 43 more fouls called before the ball is even in the air than there were in 2003. Perhaps the one anomaly is that pass interference calls in the first eight weeks have dropped by about 27 percent from a year ago.

The result of all the NFL's offseason legislation: Passing yards per game, which in 2003 reached their lowest point since 1992 (at 400.8 yards), have risen to 429.2 yards. That might not seem like very much, but the league has certainly created the perception that passing attacks are less encumbered in 2004. And if the present yardage numbers hold, said Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's powerful competition committee, they will be among the top five seasons in NFL history.

In addition, yards per pass attempt have increased (from 6.64 to 7.12) as have yards per completion (from 11.3 to 11.7), from the 2003 levels at midseason. There have been 674 completions of 20 yards or more, the most at the halfway point of the season in at least the last 10 years.

Truth be told, scoring is actually reduced slightly from the first eight weekends of the 2003 season . But league officials are confident, given the trend from October, that it will eventually register an increase over the course of the entire campaign. And offenses have scored produced scores on nearly 40 percent of their possessions that included an illegal contact penalty.

Wonder why quarterbacks have posted a leaguewide completion rate of 60.8 percent, a mark that would represent an NFL record if it prevailed over the course of the year? Well, taking nothing away from the incredible accuracy demonstrated by passers like Daunte Culpepper, Ben Roethlisberger and Chad Pennington this season, it doesn't hurt that their receivers are running through opponent secondaries far less impeded than in the recent past.

"As a receiver, the natural reaction is, 'Well, they're still not calling (illegal contact) enough,' you know?" said Ward, whose 49 catches rank second in the league. "It's still a little uneven. To be honest, though, no, you're not seeing as much grabbing. There aren't those plays where the (cornerback) has about a yard's worth of your ((uniform shirt), so there is a bit more freedom."

The fear in preseason, when the officiating crews introduced the re-emphasis of the rule with plenty of flags, was that the alteration would slow the tempo of the regular-season contests and perhaps make games interminably long. Fortunately, that has not been the case, and games have averaged the same three hours and six minutes they did in 2003. And most players concede, albeit some of them grudgingly, that there have not been many instances in which they felt the illegal contact calls had a major impact on the outcome of games.

Even some defensive backs acknowledged that their concerns that the new emphasis might turn games into a glorified seven-on-seven passing drill have been assuaged, and that they have adapted techniques and coverage schemes to help compensate for not being able to use their hands as much.

The biggest complaint from defensive backs is that game officials remain inconsistent in their applications of the rules. There have been some nit-pick or "phantom" calls, cornerbacks and safeties insist, and other times when they have jammed a receiver after the five-yard line of demarcation and gotten away with it.

"In a way," said Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend, "it's made you get back to your pure cover roots. There's more of a premium now on technique, footwork, being able to run with the receivers. It's forced us to rely more on our athletic skills. When they first announced it was coming, every defensive back in the league groaned. It was like, 'So there they go again, making up stuff to benefit the offense.' But so far it hasn't been overboard or outrageous and, at this point, the worst part is probably over in terms of having to adapt to it."

Around the league

  • In football, as in life (Mike Ditka used to start off a lot of answers that way when he was a head coach), timing is everything. And so, had the University of Washington been able to go in a different direction in July of 2003, after the Rick Neuheisel debacle concluded in his untimely dismissal, perhaps the school would have landed the head coach a lot of people wish they could now get. That guy: Jim Mora The Younger, who played defensive back for the Huskies, and maintains strong ties to his alma mater, but who is pretty gainfully employed by the Atlanta Falcons these days. Make no mistake about it, there is a pretty significant contingent of alums who desperately want Washington to go hard after Mora, an underground movement that has actually precipitated some third-party contact through intermediaries. Once upon a time, like maybe a couple years ago when he was still the San Francisco 49ers' defensive coordinator, Mora might have killed to get the Huskies position, which he considered his dream job. But that was then and this is now. And for now, Mora is experiencing an incredible rookie season, with Atlanta in first place and Michael Vick starting to make plays in a new offense. Washington might even be able to equal Mora's current contract, reportedly a five-year deal worth $7.5 million, but that won't matter. One of the NFL's rising young stars, Jim Mora, loyalties aside, is going nowhere. No one can blame Washington officials for what transpired in the summer of 2003. Because the departure of Neuheisel came only about six weeks before the start of summer camp, the school had little choice but to turn the team over to Keith Gilbertson, who resigned this week. If the timing had been different, well, who knows how it might have impacted the Washington program, and the Atlanta Falcons as well.

  • Now that Steve Spurrier isn't headed back to his alma mater, don't be surprised to see his name surface in the Pacific Northwest, even if Jeff Tedford of California might become the prime University of Washington target. Seattle, though, is a long ways from the southeastern roots of The Ol' Ball Coach, and it's tough to get in a daily round of golf with all the rain out there. But the fact Spurrier rebuffed the rather avid overtures from the University of Florida is only going to fuel the rumors that he is interested in returning for a second shot in the NFL, where he feels the looser rules in the secondary might actually promote his style of offense. Last week we reported in this space that one fairly high-ranking franchise official, whose team might make a coaching change at year's end, has been ordered by his owner to keep tabs on Spurrier and his potential opportunities. Then colleague Chris Mortensen noted last Sunday morning that the Miami Dolphins could have an interest in the highest-profile unemployed coach in the country. This week, one general manager from another team suggested to us that Spurrier will be on his club's short list if it makes a coaching change. So far all of its is nothing more than rumor and conjecture. A month ago, people close to Spurrier insisted in very strong terms he won't coach again until the 2006 season. For now, while admitting that things are always fluid with Spurrier, we'll accept that.

  • A possible one-and-done scenario for coach Norv Turner in Oakland? Given that Turner and owner Al Davis seemed to get along pretty well in the offseason and were in lockstep on key issues, that is hard to imagine. Then again, don't discount it, some Bay Area observers contended this week. Davis deep-sixed head coach Joe Bugel after only one season, a disastrous 4-12 mark in 1997, and this Raiders team might be headed for similar catastrophe. League sources with some insight into the club -- or as much insight as one can get into the Oakland operation -- say Davis has wavered at various times on his support for Turner and his impression of where the club is headed. Likewise, they say, his feelings about error-prone quarterback Kerry Collins vacillate almost from hour to hour. The one constant, they say, is that Davis is convinced that tailback Ricky Williams is the one man who might be capable of quickly reversing the franchise's floundering fortunes. "It's almost too easy to assume that Oakland will be the team most likely to make the big play for (Williams in a trade)," said one source. "It's almost too convenient. But I think it's also true that (Davis) covets him." One name to remember in the unlikely scenario Davis does opt to make a coaching change for 2005, and to hire a fourth different sideline boss in five seasons, is that of New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. There's no denying Davis prefers that his coaches be offensive oriented. But the Oakland defense is really struggling this year under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, and there has been considerable griping about him from a few veteran players.

  • The Oakland side isn't the only NFL precinct in the Bay Area where things are nasty. In San Francisco this week, fullback Fred Beasley and then tailback Kevan Barlow (who, by the way, have never exactly been very chummy) lambasted teammates for their lack of professionalism and dubious effort. The primary target was wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (Beasley didn't indentify Lloyd by name, while Barlow did), a second-year veteran who appeared to have a bright future. It's one thing for Beasley to go off. The guy is a long-time and universally respected veteran with considerable perspective. But the fact a guy like Barlow would get into the act -- a player whose own work ethic and ability to play hurt have frequently been questioned -- speaks volumes for a possible lack of leadership in the 49ers locker room. We've never argued with the club's decision to gut the roster of some older and higher-paid veterans. But in tossing out the bath water, some babies got dumped down the drain as well. It might have helped to have retained a player or two like Garrison Hearst, who could always keep a lid on things. We contended earlier in the year that coach Dennis Erickson was doing a good job, that the 49ers played hard every time out and that they were more competitive than some pundits expected. Since then, things have unraveled a bit, and the Sunday night loss to a similarly impaired Chicago Bears team, led by a rookie quarterback making his first start, was the latest example. For now, management continues to support Erickson, and it should, since he deserves the chance to be around when (or maybe if) the franchises emerges from its current tunnel. But the head coach needs to get a handle on the dissidents and urge his players to keep things in the locker room.

  • An admission here, one that probably won't make us very popular with some peers, that we agree the media doesn't have an inherent right to full disclosure on all matters. It is not a media birthright that sports franchises simply spill their guts on everything. That said, the last few weeks have presented graphic examples of how franchises can paint themselves into corners public relations-wise, when they aren't forthcoming on injury matters to which reporters will eventually become privy. A few weeks ago, the Atlanta Falcons were less than candid about the early-morning one-car accident in which defensive tackle Rod Coleman suffered knee and shoulder injuries that have kept him out of the lineup ever since. This week, the Jacksonville Jaguars weren't exactly open in describing the left knee injury sustained by star quarterback Byron Leftwich in last Sunday's defeat at Houston. Even taking coach Jack Del Rio at his word -- that he didn't know the extent of the injury or the results of an MRI exam when he met Monday with local reporters -- the Jaguars could have recovered in much better fashion once they knew Leftwich's season might be in jeopardy. League teams, the Jaguars included, do a terrific job these days of e-mailing both the local and national media with key announcements. Such an e-mail, at least to the media covering the Jags on a daily basis, might have been in order for the Leftwich injury. Instead, the team came across as trying to hide something, and that made for some awkward moments this week. No doubt, some medical privacy initiatives in this country and fears of litigation if too much information is revealed, have NFL franchises a little antsy these days. But there have been occasions in which purposeful subterfuge has backfired and teams in every sport might be wise to keep that in mind.

  • On the subject of Leftwich, he and the Jaguars will hold their breath until Monday when his damaged knee will be re-examined by prominent orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, but the suspicions are mounting that the news will not be positive. Leftwich's own admission that the damage to his knee extends beyond a partial tear of the lateral collateral ligament is ominous. Even some sources close to the second-year quarterback, who at first were suggesting he might miss only a couple games, are now backtracking. If the emerging Leftwich is sidelined, it will be interesting to see how David Garrard fares as the starter, and how offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave tailors the game plan to fit with his strengths. We watched Garrard very closely in camp in the summer of 2003, while Leftwich was still absent because of a contract impasse, and came away impressed. In fact, during the four practices we saw, Garrard was clearly superior to Mark Brunell at the time, and looked like a young player with starter's potential. What stood out was Garrard's patience and poise. The third-year veteran, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2005 season, is admired within the Jacksonville organization, and by several teams around the league. He is like Leftwich in many ways -- smart, engaging, a quick study, a natural leader -- but has different physical attributes. Depending on the state of Leftwich's injured knee, Garrard might well have the second half of the year to audition for teams looking for a promising young quarterback. Even Del Rio allowed this week that it might be difficult to retain Garrard, and that the Jags might consider trading him rather than eventually having him depart in free agency.

  • Call it a tale of two dinged-up right offensive tackles. ESPN.com has learned Cincinnati strongside blocker Willie Anderson, a long-overdue Pro Bowl selection in 2003, visited on Thursday with noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., about a knee that has been giving him problems. It marks the second trip to Andrews in recent weeks. No prognosis yet but Bengals officials fear there could be some structural lack of integrity in the knee. Anderson has started 71 straight games and played in 133 of a possible 135 contests during his career. In New England, word is that Pats officials are more concerned than they are letting on about the back problem that sidelined tackle Tom Ashworth for last week's game at Pittsburgh. The Pats had to start little-used Brandon Gorin in Ashworth's spot last week. The situation worsened when left tackle Matt Light went out with a slight head injury, forcing Gorin to the weakside and meaning guard Stephen Neal had to move outside to tackle for the first time in his career. On another front, the skinny is that Pats wide receiver Deion Branch will still require a few more weeks of rest and rehabilitation on his ailing knee.

  • Much of the attention at tight end this season has focused on rising young talents such as Antonio Gates (San Diego), Randy McMichael (Miami) and Alge Crumpler (Atlanta). But a young player who also merits scrutiny is Jason Witten of Dallas, who is really starting to come on as a steady playmaker for Cowboys quarterback Vinny Testaverde. The former University of Tennessee star had a solid enough rookie campaign in 2003, but he never really got over the fact that he slipped to the third round of the draft, and that four other tight ends went off the board ahead of him. The Cowboys brass suspected it had a steal then, but is even more convinced of that now. Witten has enjoyed a breakout two-week period, with 17 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns. He has at least three receptions in every outing this year and has begun to add yards after the catch, an area on which coach Bill Parcells has harped.

  • We're among those who believe that, for the long-term health of the franchise, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis made the right decision in turning his team over to Carson Palmer this season. And, under the circumstances, we don't agree with the critics who feel that the second-year quarterback and top overall pick in the 2003 draft has been a bust. What we do feel is that Cincinnati hasn't sufficiently insulated Palmer the way, say, Pittsburgh has protected rookie phenomenon Ben Roethlisberger. And others agree. Noted one pro scout from an AFC team: "The Bengals have subjected (Palmer) to too much punishment. When you make the decision to go with what is essentially a rookie quarterback, then you have to commit to certain things, like running the football and taking some pressure off the guy. I mean, sometimes you run just for the sake or running, to keep defenses honest and not have them teeing off on your (young quarterback)." In seven games, Palmer has averaged 38.0 "dropbacks" (pass attempts combined with sacks) and 35.3 attempts. On the other hand, Roethlisberger hasn't yet started a game in which he exceeded 25 pass attempts, has averaged 24.4 "dropbacks" and 23.4 attempts in his five starts.

  • It isn't one of the NFL's more heavily publicized deadlines, but teams must sign players to contract extensions by Monday, if they want to apply much (or, in some cases, all) of what essentially is the signing bonus to base salary for 2004. It is a maneuver that allows teams to expend extra salary cap room since the space cannot be carried over into the next season. As noted by ESPN.com in the past couple weeks, the Philadelphia Eagles use the technique almost annually to extend the contracts of good young players, and this year was no exception, with deals for wide receiver Michael Lewis and standout cornerback Sheldon Brown. There could be a few other extensions by the Monday deadline. Buffalo has approached second-year corner Terrence McGee about a four-year extension, but so far the numbers, which include a seven-figure signing bonus, haven't jibed. McGee leads the AFC with a 28.0-yard kickoff return average, has two runbacks for touchdowns, and has played well as a starting corner in the absence of the injured Troy Vincent. The Redskins are working on a deal for cornerback Fred Smoot, a player they can't afford to have escape in free agency next spring, but it isn't likely to be completed by Monday. New York Jets right offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie this week rejected an extension offer and probably will wait until after the season to negotiate with the Jets or test the free agency market.

  • Maybe the Jets should direct some of the money that McKenzie and defensive end Shaun Ellis have rejected in extension proposals and throw it at nose tackle Jason Ferguson, one of many pending unrestricted free agents the franchise will have to deal next spring. Yeah, end John Abraham, who has at least a half-sack in all but one game this season, is having a superb campaign. Ellis hasn't played up to his levels of the past two years, but has been good enough. And second-year pro Dewayne Robertson, the club's first-round pick in 2003, has really come on strong. But Ferguson is quietly having a stellar season, with 24 tackles and 3½ sacks. Not bad for an interior defender who has never had more than 4½ sacks in a season. Given some of his past injury problems, teams will be a bit wary of Ferguson, but he will still find a healthy free agency market next spring if the Jets don't retain him.

  • It was an emotional farewell when linebacker Junior Seau left his Miami Dolphins teammates this week, to return home to San Diego, where he will undergo surgery on his torn pectoral muscle. While the 15-year veteran indicated he doesn't want his celebrated career to end with an injury, it's all but certain that he won't be with the Dolphins next season. His play, which had diminished in recent years when he simply free-lanced way too much, actually improved a bit during his Miami tenure. But there figures to be a major rebuilding job undertaken in Miami and Seau, who will be 36 in January and is due a base salary of $3.5 million for the '05 season, won't be a part of it.

  • Idle thought: How would you like to have the future earning power of Baltimore Ravens linebacker/pass rusher Terrell Suggs? The second-year veteran posted 12 sacks in 2003 and has seven already this season. But the best part is that Suggs, who figures to be a double-digit sack guy annually, and will probably someday lead the league, will be a free agent after the 2007 season. And at that point, he will still be only 25 years old.

  • It's always been difficult to fathom how a kicker with a leg as strong as that of Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt, at least on field goals, struggles so much on kickoffs. Well, much to Vanderjagt's dismay, Colts coaches aren't going to try to figure it out anymore. The team has decided that punter Hunter Smith will handle the kickoff chores. Vanderjagt has just one touchback this season. The league's other 31 teams are averaging 3.12 and only four kickers have fewer touchbacks than Vanderjagt does. Colts opponents have an average starting point of beyond the 31-yard line after kickoffs, an area where Indianapolis rankes last, despite having some tremendous kick coverage players on its roster.

  • Punts: Amid the team's 7-0 start, Philadelphia kicker David Akers has been kind of lost in the shuffle. But Akers has hit 12 of his 14 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards and has seven touchbacks in what is shaping up as another tremendous season for him. . . . In the 107 games played to date that were not tied at halftime, the team with the lead at intermission has won 86 of them, or 80.4 percent. ... The Denver defense, which allowed 13 plays of 20 yards or more in its first six games, has surrendered 12 such "big plays" in its last two outings. ... The Vikings are considering re-signing former pro wrestling champion Brock Lesnar, who was in camp with Minnesota this summer but was waived, to the practice squad. With the release of end Chuck Wiley this week, the Vikings now have just eight defensive linemen on the roster and coach Mike Tice would like to get another body into the practice mix at that position. ... Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell, once known as a paragon of accuracy, hasn't had a game yet this season in which he completed 60 percent of his passes. ... The Jets are 10-2 under Herm Edwards in November. ... Eagles slot receiver Freddie Mitchell, with just nine catches to date, has done a nice job of controlling his disappointment at the lack of balls coming his way. But Mitchell is concerned about the dearth of action. ... Cleveland quarterback Jeff Garcia has a passer rating of 106.3 in the Browns' three wins and 52.9 in their four defeats.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.