Expect more illegal contact penalties in 2004

The last five minutes of the 2003 AFC championship game apparently made a lasting impression on the NFL competition committee.

Peyton Manning's futile attempt get the ball to receivers while being suffocated by New England defenders caused Indianapolis coaches to scream that the coverage was illegal. And, it seems, the league listened.

So much so that the influential committee, which sets the tone for on-field rules changes in the league, has decided to do something about all the excessive grabbing and holding that goes on in the secondary on pass plays.

As the annual league meetings convened in Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday, competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay and Jeff Fisher apprised owners and coaches that the illegal contact rule will become a so-called "point of emphasis" for the 2004 season.

Translation: Look for a lot more five-yard penalties in the secondary, and longer games, early in the campaign as officials keep defensive backs from mauling receivers.

"It just seems like (the illegal contact penalty) was called differently the last few years," said St. Louis coach Mike Martz, a member of the coaches subcommittee which works with the competition committee. "Somehow things got a little redefined, whether it was subconscious or not, and we have to get back to calling the rule as it's written."

There have been complaints the last couple seasons that the illegal contact rule had been a bit loosened. But the AFC championship game, in which the Patriots were often draped over Colts receivers and weren't flagged a single time, probably forced more focus to the issue. Colts coach Tony Dungy is also a member of the subcommittee.

Another element in the competition committee's decision to revisit the rule is that passing yards per game were dramatically reduced in 2003. The per-team average for net passing yards in a game dropped to 200.4 yards, a 5.6 percent falloff from 2002, and the lowest level since the 1992 season, when teams averaged 187.6 yards.

The rule stipulates that a defender can have only incidental contact with a receiver once the receiver is more than five yards downfield. The feeling among some coaches is that game officials have, in recent seasons, permitted defensive players more leeway. One head coach noted Sunday that while he embraces "a kind of 'let 'em play' attitude, there seems to have been a swing toward the defense lately."

By making the rule a point of emphasis, the competition committee essentially is saying that it expects illegal contact to be called much closer in 2004. There are no changes to the rule but, instead, it will be enforced as written. Game officials will likely review the rule with coaches and players when they visit training camps this summer.

Unlike a rules change, the emphasis on illegal contact requires no vote of owners, and can be unilaterally implemented by the competition committee.

While competition committee members won't so say publicly, part of their rationale is that, if game officials administer the rule tighter early in the 2004 season, defenders will become accustomed to the new emphasis and adjust to the manner in which it is called.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.