Yes, officials will do as instructed this season and crack down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs.
That was the early message from the New England Patriots' 27-24 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL's nationally televised season-opening game Thursday night.
It was an immediate showcase for the offseason directive by the league's competition committee to game officials to strictly enforce the rule prohibiting a defensive back from using physical contact to alter a receiver's pass route more than five yards downfield. Colts President Bill Polian is a member of the committee and was irate after Patriots defenders got away with some holding infractions that went uncalled in the final stages of last season's AFC title game won by New England, 24-14.
The officials called six infractions -- four for holding, one for illegal contact and one for pass interference -- against defenders in the second half Thursday, four of them against the Patriots, after a first half in which no such penalties were called.
The Patriots were known for their aggressive pass-defending methods while winning two of the past three Super Bowls, so they went into Thursday's game expecting to have several calls made against them. Two of the penalties they received Thursday fell somewhere between borderline and wrong. Safety Rodney Harrison was called for holding Colts tight end Marcus Pollard on a third-quarter play on which Indianapolis appeared to be attempting to run an illegal pick play and Pollard slammed into Harrison. But the pass was completed to the other side of the field and the Colts declined the penalty.
In the fourth quarter, New England cornerback Tyrone Poole was called for illegal contact on a play on which he, at most, lightly brushed Marvin Harrison and didn't affect the wide receiver's route, then got shoved by Harrison on the receiver's break. The call followed an incomplete pass and gave the Colts five yards and a first down.
The competition committee was looking to open up the game after passing yards per contest in the NFL fell to an 11-year low last season. The early returns were that the committee will accomplish its task. Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning combined for 591 passing yards Thursday and the two clubs totaled 848 yards of total offense.
The Patriots left newly acquired tailback Corey Dillon on the sideline and threw eight straight passes on their opening drive on their way to an Adam Vinatieri field goal. Brady finished the night with 335 passing yards. He threw his first interception at home since the 2002 season -- after 288 throws without one -- but passed for three touchdowns and had seven completions of at least 19 yards each. Manning was intercepted by Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi on Indianapolis's first drive -- Manning's 16th interception in six career starts in Foxboro, Mass., in which he is winless -- but threw for 256 yards and a touchdown. Manning had the Colts in position for a game-tying field goal in the final seconds, but Mike Vanderjagt sent a 48-yard attempt wide right to end his streak of 42 straight successful field goal tries. He was 37 for 37 last season and last missed on Dec. 8, 2002. . . .
The Patriots won their 16th straight game, two away from the unofficial NFL record. They won their 13th consecutive regular season game, four from the record that's official since the league counts only regular season games in its listing of the longest winning streaks. Dillon had a nice debut by running for 86 yards on 15 carries. But not all was promising for the Patriots. Cornerback Ty Law limped around on what appeared to be a right hamstring injury and was in and out of the lineup. Keith Traylor looked like a less-than-capable replacement for departed nose tackle Ted Washington as the New England defense was shredded for 202 rushing yards by the Colts, including 142 by Edgerrin James. . . .
Manning surpassed 25,000 career passing yards in his 97th regular season game. He reached that milestone in the second-fewest games in league history. Dan Marino got there in 92 games. . . .
Colts Coach Tony Dungy didn't make an instant-replay challenge to a call all of last season but made one Thursday night on one of the two fumbles lost by James, contending that the tailback was down by contact before the ball came free. Dungy lost the challenge. . . . Dungy confirmed to reporters after the game that his wife Lauren was hospitalized in Indianapolis but said she was fine and would not comment on a report that she had a collapsed lung.
Brady Deal Reworked
The Patriots got under the $80.582 million salary cap by this week's deadline (all 53 players on the active roster, the eight on the practice squad and those on the injured reserve list count against the cap during the season, while only the top 51 players count during the offseason) by reworking Brady's contract.
The team guaranteed the quarterback's $5.5 million salary, enabling it to prorate that total over the three seasons left on Brady's contract for cap accounting purposes. That cleared more than $3 million in cap space for the Patriots, who apparently had to trim about $1 million to be in cap compliance.
The Patriots did nothing with the cumbersome contract of Law, who counts $10.2 million against this season's cap, and avoided another last-minute roster move like last year, when Coach Bill Belichick released Lawyer Milloy just before the season after the safety refused to accept the team's proposed pay cut.
It's the second straight season that the Patriots have restructured Brady's contract and it sets the stage for negotiating a completely new deal with the quarterback, who now counts about $10 million against the 2005 salary cap and about $12 million against the '06 cap. . . .
The Patriots had Rohan Davey as their No. 2 quarterback Thursday, with Jim Miller as their emergency third-stringer.
Gannon Also Restructures
Rich Gannon, who enters the season as the Oakland Raiders' starting quarterback just ahead of newcomer Kerry Collins, also restructured his contract in recent days, agreeing to convert $2.5 million of his $7 million salary into unlikely-to-be-earned incentives that don't count against the salary cap. . . .
Raiders Coach Norv Turner is promising to announce his starting offensive line today. Robert Gallery, the second overall selection in the draft, has gotten some practice time at right tackle this week after playing during the preseason at left guard as well as his natural position, left tackle. The Raiders have Barry Simms at left tackle, Frank Middleton at left guard and Langston Walker at right tackle, and Gallery could take any of those spots or perhaps even begin the season on the bench.
The only position that appears set on the Raiders' line is right guard, where Ron Stone is penciled in as the starter. Turner previously indicated that Adam Treu would open the season as the starter at center, but perhaps could make a last-minute switch to rookie Jake Grove.
Anderson To Join Titans, But Not Yet
Place kicker Gary Anderson, the NFL's career scoring leader, has agreed to join the Tennessee Titans but probably won't do so until next week. He likely will replace Joe Nedney for a second straight season. The Titans placed Nedney on the injured reserve list after he hurt his hamstring Tuesday.
Barring a last-minute switch, punter Craig Hentrich will handle the field-goal duties during Saturday's rescheduled opening game at Miami. Hentrich kicked three field goals in last season's opener after Nedney got hurt, and went one for two on long field goal tries after Anderson joined the team. Once Anderson arrives, Hentrich will go back to punting and will handle kickoffs and lengthy field goals. To lighten Hentrich's workload a bit Saturday, the Titans plan to sign kicker Aaron Elling, just cut by Minnesota, to do kickoffs. The team also brought in kickers Tim Duncan and Matt Bryant for workouts, although Bryant was unable to kick because of a hamstring injury. . . .
The Dolphins are doing their best to take a positive outlook into the season after their turbulent offseason, training camp and exhibition season.
"It has been a crazy offseason,'' recently signed defensive end Chidi Ahanotu told reporters Thursday. "But in this day and age, anything can happen. Any team can be a champion.'' . . .
Quarterback Tim Couch and his agent, Tom Condon, apparently are contemplating filing a grievance against the Green Bay Packers. Couch was released by the Packers and now is having his sore right shoulder and arm checked out. NFL rules prohibit an injured player from being released without a financial settlement. Couch received a $625,000 signing bonus from Green Bay but won't collect his $625,000 salary for the season from the team. . . .
The St. Louis Rams placed Zack Bronson on the injured reserve list and re-signed safety Justin Lucas, just cut by the club Sunday. The Rams signed Bronson on Sunday but he hurt his ankle in practice Wednesday. . . .
Josh Reed is slated to start for Buffalo at the wide receiver spot opposite Eric Moulds, with first-round draft choice Lee Evans serving as the Bills' No. 3 wideout. . . .
Arizona has placed safety Dexter Jackson on IR because of a back injury and is contemplating reaching an injury settlement with the former Super Bowl most valuable player for Tampa Bay and releasing him. . . .
The Vikings face Dallas on Sunday, and Minnesota wideout Randy Moss always has thrived against the Cowboys after once saying that he would punish them forever for passing him over in the 1998 draft. In four career games against the Cowboys, Moss has 21 catches for 525 yards and eight touchdowns. And that was without the aid of stricter enforcement of the illegal-contact rule.
Networks Kept In L.A. Loop
The NFL is making a strong push to put a team back in Los Angeles at the same time it is preparing to negotiate a new set of network television contracts, and that probably isn't a coincidence. CBS Sports President Sean McManus said this week that his network isn't directly involved in the league's discussions with representatives for the Los Angeles market but is kept updated by the NFL as a "courtesy.''
Said McManus: "They'd like to have a team in Los Angeles. They understand the importance of having the second-largest media market in the country. Having said that, it's not as if the league has suffered dramatically since losing the L.A. team. The television ratings have been very consistent. I think the television packages have been pretty successful, and there's still an awful lot of interest across the country in NFL football. So as much as they'd like it, I think they're not going to go in and do anything quickly or make a mistake.''
Panthers Rework Muhammad's Contract
The Carolina Panthers saved $1.87 million in salary cap space by restructuring the contract of wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. The Panthers added a season to Muhammad's deal, which had been set to expire following this season, and converted $3.74 million of his salary into a new signing bonus, which then could be prorated over the next two seasons for cap accounting purposes. That lowered Muhammad's cap figure for this season from $6.478 million to $4.6 million. But, even with the additional year on his contract, he almost certainly will be released before next season, when he would receive a $10 million roster bonus and count $12.535 million against the salary cap. . . .
The Packers had been hopeful that cornerback Mike McKenzie would end his holdout and show up for work Wednesday. He didn't. And now that it appears that McKenzie's contract dispute will linger into the season, the Packers will have to make some adjustments for Monday night's opener at Carolina. Green Bay rarely flip-flopped its cornerbacks last season, usually leaving McKenzie on one side of the field and Al Harris on the other; each covered whichever receiver lined up on his side of the field, and the Packers didn't fret too much about the matchups.
But Green Bay probably doesn't want to allow McKenzie's replacement, Michael Hawthorne, to get caught covering Panthers star wideout Steve Smith too often Monday, so Harris perhaps will follow Smith to whichever side of the field he lines up on. That would leave Hawthorne usually covering Muhammad. Hawthorne got the starting nod over first-round draft choice Ahmad Carroll, who was selected as a prospective replacement for McKenzie but now is slated to be the third cornerback Monday. . . .
The New York Giants certainly look like the weak link in a bolstered NFC East as the season gets under way. "If they win more than six games,'' just-retired Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said this week, "Tom Coughlin deserves coach of the year.''
Fellow CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said the Giants' record would be "definitely south of .500,'' and predicated that top overall draft selection Eli Manning would take over for veteran Kurt Warner as the team's starting quarterback "before the halfway point in the season.''
Even former Giants quarterback Phil Simms has modest goals for the club's season. "It'll be deemed a success if they get it organized and get it together late in the year,'' Simms said. . . .
Jason Whittle, just acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay last week, is slated to be the Giants starting left guard on Sunday at Philadelphia. Kevin Lewis is to start at middle linebacker ahead of Nick Greisen, who was the designated replacement for Michael Barrow when the veteran was released but didnt regain the job after hurting his hamstring in the preseason opener. The Giants plan to make a game-time decision Sunday about whether starting cornerback Will Allen, hindered by a sprained knee, will play against the Eagles. Allen practiced today. . . .
Rookie Madieu Williams, a second-round draft pick from the University of Maryland, could start for the Cincinnati Bengals at cornerback on Sunday against the New York Jets in place of Deltha O'Neal, who continues to be bothered by an ankle injury suffered in the first preseason game. . . .
Tailback Lee Suggs is unlikely to play for Cleveland against Baltimore on Sunday because of a pinched nerve in his neck. He hasn't practiced yet this week. . . .
Dick Jauron, fired as Chicago's head coach after last season, faces the Bears on Sunday as Detroit's new defensive coordinator. . . .
Wide receiver Kevin Dyson passed his physical for Tennessee this week and worked out for the Titans, but wasn't immediately signed. The Titans still might sign Dyson, released by San Diego, after the opening game, when his salary for the season wouldn't be guaranteed. Dyson's salary for the season becomes guaranteed if he's on a team's season-opening roster because he's a vested veteran. . . .
Chargers center Jason Ball apparently will continue his holdout into the season. . . .
Wide receiver Torry Holt participated in the Rams' practice on Thursday after being plagued by back spasms this week. . . .
The Cowboys signed rookie running back Ran Carthon to their practice squad this week. He is the son of the team's offensive coordinator and running backs coach, Maurice Carthon.
Buffalo defensive tackle Sam Adams missed some of todays practice because of a sprained toe but probably will play in the Bills opener. . . .
Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher practiced today and the team seems increasingly confident he is recovered from the severe hamstring pull that he suffered at the outset of training camp.