During the off-season, NFL legislation passed a stricter illegal contact rule, one that focuses on the secondary teams and the wide receivers. Wide receivers have been given more room to operate and more freedom. Last week during the first quarter of the Steelers-Patriots game, coach Bill Cowher told three of his wide receivers (Ward, Burress, Randle El) to run routes as aggressively as they possibly can and encouraged contact between them and New England’s secondary. Cowher was sure that if there was contact, the referees would call it due to the emphasis this season on contact by defenders outside of the five-yard legal zone. Generally, Cowher’s assumption was dead on. However, there are still many teams that still believe their receivers are not getting the amount of freedom they deserve. The Philadelphia Eagles is one of the teams whining about this. The Eagles sent a tape to Mike Pereira, NFL director of officiating, claiming their receivers were abused last week in their showdown with the Baltimore Ravens. The numbers during the first half of this season show that the referees are being more strict, giving the receivers the freedom they need. So far, there have been 68 illegal contact penalties in the league compared to only 30 last season at the same point in time. That shows an astonishing increase of 167 percent of calls being made. Defensive holds, mostly in the secondary, have increased as well. There have also been 43 more fouls called before the ball is in the air than there were overall last season.
The one inconsistency with the increase in calls this season is that pass interference calls have dropped by approximately 27 percent. Due to the re-emphasis of the illegal contact rule, passing yards per game have improved to 429.2 yards, compared to 400.8 in 2003 where they reached their lowest since 1992. Yards-per-pass attempt have also increased to 7.12 from 6.64. Yards per completion have increased from 11.3 to 11.7. This season also has 674 completions of 20 yards or more. This is the most at the midseason point in the last 10 years. Quarterbacks are posting a leaguewide completion rate of 60.8 percent. If this percent prevailed through the remainder of the 2004 season, it would post an NFL record.
Although star quarterbacks like Daunte Culpepper, Ben Roethlisberger, and Chad Pennington have demonstrated expert accuracy, this increase in the completion rate across the league can be attributed to the receivers being able to run through secondaries more freely than they have been able in the past. “As a receiver, the natural reaction is ‘Well, they’re still not calling [illegal contact] enough,’ you know?” Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers told ESPN. Ward has an astonishing 49 catches his season, which ranks him second in the league.
“It’s still a little uneven. To be honest, though, you’re not seeing as much grabbing. There aren’t those plays where the [cornerback ] has about a yard’s worth of your [uniform shirt], so there is a bit more freedom.” The biggest complaint from the defensive backs is that the officials are inconsistent with their calls. Many times the calls seem nit-picky, and some “phantom” calls have been made. Other times, the backs have jammed the receiver after the five-yard line of demarcation and there was no call made.
“In a way it’s made you get back to your pure cover roots. There’s more of a premium now on technique, footwork, being able to run with the receivers.
It’s forced us to rely more on our athletics skills. When they first announced it was coming, every defensive back in the league groaned. It was like, ‘So there they go again, making up stuff to benefit the offense.’ But so far it hasn’t been overboard or outrageous and, at this point, the worst part is probably over in terms of having to adapt to it,” Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend told ESPN.