By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008
When the NFL rule-makers cracked down four years ago on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive players to try to open up the passing game, the move widely was viewed as a response to the rugged way in which the New England Patriots had played defense on their way to their first two Super Bowl titles.
That 2004 directive by the league's competition committee changed the way the game is played, perhaps forever. It has led to a rewriting of the record book. And, oddly enough, it set the stage for the Patriots to become arguably the most dominant team in league history this season as they chase an unbeaten season and their fourth Super Bowl championship with an offense orchestrated by Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
The very rule once thought to be more detrimental to the Patriots than to any other NFL club has become a crucial asset, yet another example of how the franchise has become a dynasty because Belichick and his front office are more adaptable than anyone else in the league.
"I don't think there's any doubt it's changed the game," former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said this week. "I don't know how much it's changed it for everyone, but it has certainly changed it for the better for those teams that have the quarterback."
The Patriots clearly fall into that category. Brady set a single-season NFL record with 50 touchdown passes during the regular season and was named the league's most valuable player. He completed 26 of 28 passes, establishing a single-game postseason record for completion percentage, in Saturday's 31-20 triumph over the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC semifinal. The Patriots will take a 17-0 record into Sunday's AFC title game against the San Diego Chargers in Foxborough, Mass. They're two victories from securing a fourth Super Bowl crown in seven seasons and joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated teams in league history.
It was soon after the Patriots' second Super Bowl win on Feb. 1, 2004, that the competition committee, the NFL's rule-making body, acted to try to help quarterbacks and receivers. Passing yards per game had dipped to an 11-year low in the 2003 season, and the members of the competition committee determined that game officials were not enforcing a longstanding rule prohibiting a defensive player from making contact with a receiver more than five yards downfield. The committee made properly enforcing the "illegal contact" rule a point of officiating emphasis for the 2004 season. The hands of NFL defensive backs were, in effect, tied.
Many observers attributed the competition committee's action to the Patriots' defensive play in their 24-14 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game on Jan. 18, 2004. The Patriots intercepted Colts quarterback Peyton Manning four times that day and Indianapolis's receivers were upset because they felt that several holding infractions had gone uncalled by officials at key moments. Bill Polian, the Colts' influential team president, was particularly angry. The Colts' complaints were aired to the competition committee, which also studied the Patriots' defensive play against the "Greatest Show on Turf" when they beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, 2002.
"Nothing is about one game," said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans who was on the competition committee at the time. "We went back to the Super Bowl with St. Louis and New England. We looked at a lot of things, a lot of games. Clearly, the rule was not being enforced as it was written. That's why we made the change. You would never base a rule on one game. You just wouldn't do that."
Even so, the perception around the league was that the Patriots-Colts game had led to the change, putting an anti-Patriots slant on it. The officials did as instructed in the 2004 season, and the number of illegal-contact penalties called on defensive players skyrocketed. Passing yards and scoring increased. Manning threw 49 touchdown passes for the Colts, breaking the league record of 48 set by Miami's Dan Marino in 1984.
But if Manning and the Colts were the early beneficiaries of the new rule, Brady and the Patriots have shoved them aside. The Patriots beat the Colts in the playoffs again and won the Super Bowl again in the 2004 season. They've had what is, by their recent standards, a drought since then, going without a Super Bowl appearance the previous two seasons. They got close last season but lost a thrilling AFC championship game in Indianapolis in part because a modestly talented receiving corps made glaring mistakes at bad times.
So the Patriots' brain trust of owner Robert Kraft, front-office chief Scott Pioli and Belichick went out and got Brady some wide receivers in the offseason. The team traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker and signed Donte' Stallworth as a free agent. Those maneuvers, along with the signing of free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas, were unusually expensive and high-profile moves for the Patriots, who had made a habit of dealing with the salary cap and free agency better than other teams by being effective bargain shoppers over the years.
"For a number of years, the Patriots took care of just about every part of their team except the receiving corps," Reese said. "They hadn't done a whole lot in that area until last year. I think they adapted a little bit to the Indy philosophy. They already had the quarterback and they knew the rules helped those two groups -- the quarterback and receivers. If you don't have the quarterback, the rules don't help you that much."
The results were staggering this season. The Patriots set a single-season NFL scoring record. Moss broke Jerry Rice's single-season record for touchdown catches. Brady broke Manning's record for touchdown passes, meaning that Marino's mark that had stood for 20 years has been broken twice in four seasons since the crackdown on defensive illegal contact.
"Randy Moss changed their whole offense," Casserly said this week. "It's Moss and Welker, but mostly Moss. They're a pass-first offense and they've opened it up even more this season. If you take those two guys away, I don't know what you'd have. The only thing that can get you with an offense like that is the weather. The wind could really hurt you. They do have the ability to run the ball. It's not like they're totally one-dimensional. But they've been a wide-open team for a while and they've evolved to be even more of that because of the personnel they have."
The Patriots have become so efficient in the passing game that those in their locker room were completely unfazed by Brady's 93 percent accuracy against the Jaguars, who limited Moss to one catch but let Brady pick them apart with passes to Welker, tight end Benjamin Watson and running back Kevin Faulk. One of Brady's incompletions Saturday came on a pass that bounced off Watson's hands. The other came on a drop by Welker.
"When you have a group of receivers and a quarterback that work as well as these guys do, that's not unexpected," Patriots left tackle Matt Light said after the Jaguars game. "That's kind of the way that it is around here."
It was suggested to Reese that perhaps the balance of power between passer and pass defender has been thrown out of whack by the current rules and the NFL should consider going back to the pre-2004 arrangement. Reese chuckled and said it's too late for that.
"I don't think that will ever happen," Reese said. "Being a former defensive coach, it probably should. But it's too good for TV. It's too good for the fans. Look at this weekend with Brady and [Packers quarterback Brett] Favre, and how excited people are about these games and the possibility that it will be Brady against Favre in the Super Bowl. It's not because of the running game. It's not because of the blocking. It's because of Brady and Favre. This put the teams that have the quarterback truly in the elite, even more so than before, and there's no going back now."