The highly publicized, widely debated attempt by the NFL's leaders to open up the passing game this season by cracking down on defensive clutching-and-grabbing tactics is working, those leaders say. But the effect of the once-controversial rule modification has been more subtle than many observers expected, and the cries of protest by defenders league-wide have subsided even while passing statistics have gotten a bump upward.
Defensive backs complained loudly after the NFL's competition committee, composed of front-office executives and coaches, decided in the offseason to instruct game officials to strictly enforce the rule forbidding contact that disrupts a receiver's route more than five yards downfield. They said that the league seemed intent on tilting the competitive balance between receiver and defender too far in favor of the offensive player, and they feared that the record books would be rewritten by quarterbacks and receivers this season.
But while NFL teams are averaging about 14.2 more passing yards per game than last season, scoring is down slightly. Clubs are averaging 20.7 points per game, down from 20.8 last season. Still, several members of the competition committee said this week that the changes the group enacted are having the desired effect.
"We had a meeting last week and went over all the penalties," Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, a member of the competition committee, said by telephone early in the week. "I don't know if I can give you an overall picture except to say we're playing a cleaner game in the secondary. What I notice is, I don't see the flagrant abuses I was seeing last year on tape. People are playing a clean game and abiding by the rules. Fourteen yards is not a lot. It's one play per game. But it's one of those things that kind of got out of hand, and we recognized it and stepped in. Everybody is abiding by it. Players are adapting."
The committee's directive to officials was called the "Patriot Rule" by some in the league, since it came about after the Indianapolis Colts were furious about holding tactics by New England defenders that went un-penalized in the final moments of the Patriots' victory in last season's AFC title game. Colts President Bill Polian is a member of the competition committee. Passing yards per game in the NFL reached an 11-year low last season, committee members pointed out when the directive was issued.
Players wondered during the preseason if officials would call the illegal contact penalties during the exhibition games to appease their bosses, then forget about the directive during the regular season. That hasn't happened.
Through the Week 7 games, in the most recent figures compiled by the league, there had been 53 defensive illegal contact penalties, up from 22 at the same point last season.
Officials also have complied with the competition committee's directive to crack down on illegal motion infractions by offenses, as the Washington Redskins learned the hard way on the controversial call that cost them a late go-ahead touchdown in Sunday's loss to the Green Bay Packers at FedEx Field. There were 42 illegal motion penalties through the Week 7 games this season, compared with six over the same duration last season.
And that's with the overall number of accepted penalties virtually identical to last season.
NFL quarterbacks are on course toward completing a record percentage of their passes: The league-wide completion rate is 60.8 percent, up from 58.8 percent last season. Yards per catch are up (from 11.3 last season to 11.7 this season) as well. Yet defenses seem to feel that officials have given them a fair chance this season, and there has been relatively little attention given to the increased number of illegal contact calls.
"I have not noticed it during the regular season," New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said by phone this week. "I did some during the preseason. But we're seven games into our season -- eight if you count our bye week because I was watching some other games -- and I still haven't seen a single call in which I reacted and said, 'There's the new rule.' "
Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens' GM who is a member of the competition committee, said the lack of an uproar over the increase in illegal contact penalties and passing yards per game means that officials have managed to put the committee's wishes into effect seamlessly.
"I think the enforcement has been good," Newsome said Sunday before the Ravens lost to the Eagles in Philadelphia. "I think the officials on the field have a very good understanding how we want it called. A lot of people thought it was going to turn the passing game into a seven-on-seven drill. It hasn't done that. But we changed the rules so that it would impact the passing game, and it has."
Praise for officiating comes grudgingly from NFL coaches and players, but it is coming on this issue. "I think, for the most part, it has been pretty consistent," Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said last week when asked about the enforcement of the competition committee's directive.
Some quarterbacks and receivers are having big seasons. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper is on a pace to have 418 completions, 4,983 passing yards and 46 touchdown passes, threatening Dan Marino's NFL single-season records of 418 completions, 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is on course for 4,939 passing yards and 50 touchdowns. The passer ratings of Culpepper (114.2) and Manning (117.4) are above the season record of 112.8.
Philadelphia Eagles wideout Terrell Owens is on course for 21 touchdown catches, which would fall one shy of the single-season record. Culpepper's favorite target, Randy Moss, was on a 26-touchdown-catch pace before missing almost all of the past two games because of a strained hamstring. But no one is close to threatening the single-season records of 143 catches and 1,848 receiving yards, and there are few -- if any -- complaints that the passing game has gotten out of hand. Even the Patriots have adjusted, winning their first six games before losing Sunday at Pittsburgh.
There are some oddities in the numbers. Pass-interference calls are way down, from 100 through Week 7 last season to 67 through Week 7 this season. Overall rushing yards are down, but individual 100-yard rushing performances are on a record pace. That may be because the best runners are getting long gains because defenses are gambling with blitzes -- in part because they can't cover receivers legally without pressure on the quarterback, and in part because so many teams are playing young quarterbacks. Sacks are up, and league statisticians say that defenses league-wide are blitzing about 30 percent of the time.
"You've got a lot of first- and second-year quarterbacks playing around the league, and we've got a lot of blitzing going on," Newsome said. "Those things contribute to running games."