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NFL crackdown on illegal contact may spur epic stat surge for QBs like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning set NFL records last season for passing yards and touchdown passes but failed to win the Super Bowl (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

RICHMOND—The way Brandon Browner figures it, his approach to playing pass defense won’t change this season, even with the NFL telling its game officials for the first time in seven years to crack down on illegal contact in the secondary. Browner, in his view, has no choice but to keep playing the same way he has always played.

“I just try to play my game, be physical out there, because that’s the big asset in my game is to be physical,” the former Pro Bowl cornerback, readying for his first season with New England after three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, said here last week following one of the Patriots’ joint training camp practices with the Washington Redskins. “I’m a big 6[-foot-]4, 200-pound guy. So I’m not as quick as some of these other guys. I’ve got to use my abilities.”

But will Browner be able to keep playing such a physical style successfully? That remains to be seen, with the NFL saying that strict enforcement of the illegal contact rules will be a “major” point of officiating emphasis for the 2014 season. That could have significant implications, not only for Browner and fellow defensive backs league-wide but also for quarterbacks, receivers and statisticians.

The NFL last made illegal contact a point of emphasis for officials in each season between 2004 and 2007. The 2004 crackdown helped to usher in the most passing-friendly era that the sport has ever seen. So will passing numbers increase significantly again this season? Is that even possible, after the dizzying heights they already have reached? Some players say there’s no way of knowing yet.

“They always want the offense to score touchdowns,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said last week. “So I’m sure it’ll make it a little tougher. But I tell people, I mean, each year we hear it’s gonna be an emphasis: You can’t touch the guy. So we’ll see. I think each game you’ve got to just do business as business is being done.”

In the 2004 season, quarterback Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdown passes for the Indianapolis Colts, breaking the NFL’s single-season record. That record, set by Dan Marino, had stood for 20 years. But Manning’s record lasted only until Tom Brady threw 50 touchdown passes for the Patriots in 2007. And Brady’s mark lasted only until Manning threw 55 touchdown passes last season for the Denver Broncos.

Entering the 2008 season, there had been one 5,000-yard passing season in league history, by Marino for the Miami Dolphins in 1984. From the 2008 season on, there have been seven 5,000-yard passing seasons by four different quarterbacks — four by Drew Brees of New Orleans and one each by Manning, Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford. Manning set a single-season NFL record with 5,477 passing yards last year, topping Brees’s 2011 output by a yard.

Both crackdowns on illegal contact came after Manning was frustrated by an opposing defense in a high-profile postseason game. It happened against the Patriots in the AFC title game in the 2003 season while Manning was with the Colts, and it happened in last season’s Super Bowl when he and the Broncos were overrun by Seattle’s dominating defensive performance. But there is a glimmer of hope for the Seahawks and other teams that want to play a physical style of pass defense: The Patriots beat Manning and the Colts again in the AFC playoffs and won their second straight Super Bowl in the 2004 season, even with officials emphasizing the existing rules prohibiting clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage.

“You don’t want to be out there thinking about getting penalties,” Browner said. “You play your game and let the chips fall where they may.”

This time around, there is at least a flip side to the point of emphasis on illegal contact and the closely related penalty of holding by pass defenders. The league also has instructed officials to strictly monitor receivers for pushing off. When officials made a recent visit to the Philadelphia Eagles’ training camp and were on the field for a practice, many of the flags that they threw during one-on-one drills between receivers and defensive backs were for offensive pass interference.

“We got a chance to talk to the refs and they explained that they were gonna call illegal contact a lot tighter this year,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said that day in Philadelphia. “They’re cutting it off at five yards where last year it lingered through six or seven. They’re gonna be really [strict] on that five-yard rule, as well as defensive holding. If they see any tug on the jersey, regardless if it affects the receiver or not, they’re gonna call holding. So that makes it hard on us. We’ve got to rely on our technique.

“But they’re giving us something back where receivers can’t push off at the top of the route. We saw them throw a lot of those flags today. So it allows us to use our technique without being bullied over.”

An offensive player, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, had a similar view.

“They say they’re emphasizing illegal contact,” Graham said last week at the Saints’ camp in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. “But also they’re also emphasizing offensive [pass interference] as well. This is a league where if you’re running a route and you’re going full go and you come to a stop, these last couple years you’ve been able to push off. And so equally as much as they’re being harder on them [defensive backs], they say down the field with us there’s going to be no messing around. So there’s give and take there. I think it will equal out.”

If the early preseason numbers are any indication, however, the calls against offensive players won’t come close to matching the calls against defenders. Through the first 17 preseason games league-wide, there have been 58 defensive holding, 27 illegal contact and 11 offensive pass interference calls. Five teams already have had defensive holding called against them at least four times each.

Eagles Coach Chip Kelly said he’s less concerned about how the competitive balance between offense and defense will be affected than he is about seeing whether the calls are made consistently from week to week.

“I think to anybody, as long as it’s called the same way for all 32 teams, it doesn’t bother us,” Kelly said. “It’s just if it’s called one way in one game and then one way in another game…. We were aware of it. They voted on all this stuff at the league meeting and presented it to us there. So we were pretty conscious of what was coming down the road.”

But this is a league in which defensive players have complained in recent years that rule-makers have done everything to favor offenses. Many have said that the rules banning illegal contact in the secondary and restricting the hits that can be made on quarterbacks throwing a pass and receivers making a catch have made playing aggressive, effective defense next to impossible.

McCourty was asked last week if he’s waiting for the day when the NFL will make a major rule change to favor defenses.

“Yeah,” he said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see that.”