Now it's the defenses' turn.
The NFL's rules-makers tilted the scales heavily toward the offenses last season. Team owners, at the behest of the league's competition committee, voted before last season to order game officials to crack down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive players against receivers, intending to open up the passing game and create a more exciting, higher-scoring brand of football with greater appeal to fans.
They got exactly what they wanted, as passers and pass-catchers league-wide had defenders at their mercy. Scoring rose from 41.7 points per NFL game in 2003 to 43 points per contest last season, and passing yards per game increased from 400.9 in '03 to 421.1 last season. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino's single-season NFL record for touchdown passes, with 49, and had the highest passer rating in league history, at 121.1.
Competition committee members and the owners declared themselves pleased with the results, and opted against offering defenders any sort of rule-book rollback for this season. Why go back now? The NFL just reinforced its status as the nation's most popular and prosperous sports league by completing a wildly lucrative new set of national television contracts.
So defensive coordinators and their players are on their own. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said during training camp, however, that he's not afraid the league has legislated great, dominating defense out of the sport or made the game unfair.
"Defense always catches the offense," Jones said. "Always. No matter what adjustments you make, no matter how initially you sway it, the defense catches offense. It's an evolving thing. . . . I'm not concerned about a long-term advantage. You know we want to move the ball and why we obviously keep changing rules to help the offense. The reason you have to keep doing that is because those defenses keep tightening down. The guys are faster and bigger, and we've got the same width and length of a football field. There's no more room to run, and so you've got to give it a little bit of help."
Players and coaches, though, say there's no denying that the game changed dramatically last season with the renewed officiating emphasis on penalizing defenders for impeding receivers more than five yards downfield.
"The statistics will tell you that: They scored more points," Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "That's usually a pretty good barometer for the effect that the rule changes had on the game for that year. The numbers, in this case, don't lie."
But LeBeau, who's in his 47th season in the NFL as a player or coach, said he and his defensive peers league-wide aren't about to surrender.
"You have 11 people out there," he said. "You've got gaps that they've got to fill. What people have to do on defense to be successful has really not changed that dramatically. The size and the speed of the athletes that are doing it have changed. The basics, sure, they've changed a little bit because you have to match the offense. They get to be the prime movers because they huddle up and they snap the ball. We're pretty much reacting to what we're seeing. But overall, what a defensive player has to do to be successful, it isn't a whole lot different than when I played, even."
The question that a coach running a defense now faces is whether to overhaul the unit's style of play to try to adjust, or keep doing the same things but attempt to do them better and within the restrictions of the altered rules.
Some people around the league think it has become so overwhelmingly difficult for defensive backs to cover receivers effectively man-to-man that the only reasonable response is to either play very passive zones in the secondary -- and make offenses complete a string of short passes in a long, drawn-out drive without first making a major mistake -- or ratchet up the aggressiveness and blitz quarterbacks into submission. If you can't cover the receivers, that line of reasoning goes, you may as well do everything you can to sack the quarterback.
The in-demand commodity in this year's draft was the 'tweeners -- sleek defensive players capable of playing end in a four-lineman, three-linebacker alignment or outside linebacker in a 3-4 setup. Three such players -- Troy University's Demarcus Ware, Maryland's Shawne Merriman and Georgia's David Pollack -- came off the board within the draft's initial 17 selections, and more traditional defensive ends Erasmus James of Wisconsin and Marcus Spears of LSU followed soon thereafter.
The New England Patriots have won three of the past four Super Bowls by relying on a set of versatile defensive players who can line up at different positions and do different things. The Patriots' do-everything linebacker, Mike Vrabel has become the model for what NFL talent evaluators are seeking.
"I don't care where they line me up," Merriman, now with the San Diego Chargers, said during camp. "I just want to get out there and get after people. Hopefully, I can get things down and we can find some ways to keep people guessing where I'm coming from."
The 3-4 scheme is making a comeback in the NFL, in part because teams see a need to have one more speedy linebacker and one less chunky defensive tackle on the field. After the Cowboys drafted Ware, Spears and Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett (a second-round pick), Coach Bill Parcells ordered his defensive assistants to learn how to coach a 3-4. He brought two of his former New York Giants defensive standouts, Jim Burt and Carl Banks, to the Cowboys' camp to help teach the nuances of the 3-4. Part of Banks's assignment was to help turn Ware into something resembling Lawrence Taylor. That's not asking much, is it?
According to Ware, the Cowboys used the two defensive formations, the 3-4 and the 4-3, roughly equally on their training camp practice field, and Jones said it's possible the club could switch back and forth during the season.
"We have a real good, in-place plan where if, for whatever reason, we get uncomfortable with the learning curve here, players or coaches, we've got a lot of 4-3 alignments," Jones said. "You can be flexible even within the framework of a possession. We've got the issue of we've got some really good players that we'd like to have out there at the same time."
Said LeBeau: "The 3-4 teams have had success. Usually, there's a general cycle there. [Offenses] get comfortable facing the 4-3 because everybody's playing the 4-3 and the 3-4, they're the aberrant one. But when it comes around and everybody's playing 3-4, then the 4-3 will have a little bit of an advantage because teams don't play against it very often."
LeBeau is on the side of the debate that says the formula for success in this new passing-friendly age is to play defense the same way, just try to do it better. It worked last year, when the Steelers led the league in total defense during a regular season in which they went 15-1.
"What we teach is still sound, the positioning that we teach," LeBeau said. "I think that you have to be very, very disciplined as a defender to keep your hands off of that guy after he goes five yards. Maybe it changes the emphasis that you put on your practice time, but we try not to change our technique of coverage very much."
Teams now pay top dollar in free agency for qualified coverage cornerbacks, since they're so rare. For a young cornerback, the transition to the NFL is complicated by the rules that stifle his aggressiveness.
"That's difficult," said rookie Ronald Bartell, a second-round draft choice by the St. Louis Rams from Howard University. "That's one of the hardest parts right there, coming from college where . . . I liked to get physical with guys. Now after five yards, you can't even wave at them. It's real tough. [The rules are] made for the offense, but you have to deal with it. I think I'm getting better at it, but it's something I'm still working on every day."
The NFL might one day see another overpowering defense that carries its team to a Super Bowl triumph almost single-handedly, as with the Baltimore Ravens following the 2000 season. But that probably won't be this season. The next Steel Curtain or Purple People Eaters isn't on the immediate horizon, not in this environment. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is one of the greatest defensive masterminds ever, yes, but he's benefited plenty from having quarterback Tom Brady leading his offense.
Whatever new ideas emerge in the bid to put NFL defenses back on a level playing field, LeBeau says what matters most will remain executing the fundamentals of the sport.
"Schemes are different, sure," he said. "But it's still a game of you have to find the ballcarrier, and you have to get him on the ground. . . . The things you have to do, whether you play 3-4 or 4-3 or 5-2 or whatever, they're not going to change much in football, what you have to do to be successful. You have to get the quarterback and you have to get the ballcarrier down."