Defensive backs are feeling picked on as the NFL season gets under way.
"No one wants to see us succeed," Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said in training camp. "No one wants to help us out. Everyone wants to see guys catching balls and scoring touchdowns and lighting up the scoreboard."
One of the league's officiating points of emphasis for this season, as declared by the influential competition committee that's comprised of coaches and front-office executives, is to strictly enforce the rule prohibiting a defender from impeding a receiver more than five yards downfield.
It's a directive to game officials to pay close attention to an existing rule, not a rule change. But it could have a significant impact on play this season as the league admittedly tries to open up the passing game, noting that the average passing yards per game declined last season to the lowest level in 11 years.
The modification probably had its genesis in last season's AFC championship game, in which the Indianapolis Colts were incensed that the victorious New England Patriots were not called for defensive holding penalties on some key plays down the stretch. Colts President Bill Polian was visibly angry after the game, and he's a member of the competition committee. The crackdown proposal was vigorously supported in the committee's deliberations, people familiar with the proceedings say, by St. Louis Rams Coach Mike Martz, a member of the coaches subcommittee and the man behind "The Greatest Show on Turf."
So defensive coaches and players league-wide are braced for a repeat of the 1994 season, when this version of the "chuck rule" first was put into effect and 117 defensive illegal-contact penalties were called, up from 40 in the '93 season. There were 79 such penalties last season.
The five-yard penalties are costly to defenses because they result in automatic first downs, extending drives by offenses and sometimes shifting momentum by keeping weary defenders on the field after third-down incompletions. Some coaches say they will limit or even abandon aggressive "bump-and-run" coverage tactics by cornerbacks and use more passive zones. Teams with aggressive defenders in the secondary -- such as the Patriots, winners of two of the past three Super Bowls -- will have a particularly difficult adjustment to make.
"It's going to affect some teams more than other teams," said Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, a member of the competition committee.
San Diego Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer had his defensive backs wear boxing gloves while practicing at one point in training camp to get them accustomed to defending without grabbing receivers. Many coaches will put a premium on their pass rush to get to quarterbacks before they can be called for penalties in the secondary.
"I can understand why they're doing it from a business perspective, to try to have high-scoring games for the fans and for TV," Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent, the president of the NFL Players Association, said at an offseason charity event. "That doesn't mean I have to be happy about it as a player who plays the position that I play."
Green Bay veteran safety Darren Sharper called the infractions "ridiculous" and "terrible" after a preseason game in which Packers cornerbacks were cited for seven penalties, and suggested to reporters that the league simply have offenses play games without defenses on the field to accomplish its goals. But Casserly said he thinks the rule modification will have only a modest effect on play this season and another competition committee member, Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, agreed.
"Defensive backs are still the best athletes on the field," Newsome said. "Jeff Fisher [the Tennessee Titans' coach who is a co-chairman of the competition committee] would say to us in the competition committee meetings: 'We'll coach 'em up. We'll adjust.' We had a conference call the other day and they were saying there have been more illegal formation [calls on offenses during the preseason] than illegal contact. Will it impact play? Yes. But will it dramatically change it? No."
Said former New York Giants quarterback and current CBS analyst Phil Simms: "When they first made the change and I read about it, I thought it was going to be really, really big. But as I've been watching the exhibition games, it doesn't look to me like it will be as big as I originally thought. Players and coaches have a great, great ability to adapt."
"The intent of this rule was and is to allow receivers to run unimpeded pass routes after five yards, and it is the conclusion of the [competition] committee that the present enforcement of the rule is not consistent with the intent.
"Accordingly, the committee has determined that a simple clarification of the rule ... and a re-emphasis of its enforcement will allow the rule to be officiated as it was intended. A defender is not permitted to chuck or extend an arm or to hook the receiver, if it re-directs, restricts or impedes the receiver 'in any way.' However, incidental contact (not intentional) is permissible.
"This rule will be strictly enforced. Defensive players who initiate contact beyond five yards by use of the squat or collision techniques will be penalized."
Source: 2004 Officiating Department Presentations to Media and Networks