New Contact Rule Should Have Little Effect

We want more offense. We want higher scores. We want more long plays. At least that's what the powers that be in the NFL think. So they've done what they think we want them to do. They've gone ahead and changed the rules -- again -- in order to make football more exciting.

At issue is the new "downfield contact" rule, which severely limits how much defensive backs can touch a receiver when defending a pass. The new rule will accomplish what it is designed to do: handcuff the defense and give the wide receivers more opportunity to catch the ball. As a result, we'll see more long bombs, less aggressive secondary coverage, and more yellow hankies flying. But, just as with any new rule, it will be strictly enforced for the first couple of years and then slowly fade into the sunset.

Case in point. Remember the "in the grasp" rule several years ago? It was supposed to protect quarterbacks from getting squashed by those big bullies on the defensive line. Sounded like a good idea at the time but, initially, the refs would blow the whistle at the first sign of a hand grabbing a jersey. Who knows how many great escapes were thwarted by early whistles? When fans, coaches and players finally protested that the rule was too restrictive on a quarterback's mobility, officials backed off and now it's practically non-existent.

I have a feeling this new contact rule will meet the same fate. After a couple of seasons of fans seeing defensive backs flagged for reaching out to defend a pass, league officials will probably reconsider and loosen it up a bit. If you recall, the original "chuck" rule adopted in the 1970s gave DBs only a three-yard cushion from the line of scrimmage in which to make contact with a receiver, but then was relaxed to a five-yard area a few years later. Reason? It really didn't accomplish what they hoped it would.

Statically speaking, there wasn't much difference between the 1973 and 1974 seasons in the categories one might think would be affected by the rule change: passing yards per game, points per game, interceptions per game and penalties per game. The only stat that saw a significant change was in the passing yards with just a 12-yard per game increase. That's hardly enough to say with any confidence that the rule helped open up the passing game.

The other three categories saw changes that were either insignificant or in the opposite direction expected. Points per game actually went down by 1.2 points, interceptions went up by 0.1 per game, and penalties increased by only 0.4 per game.

Bottom line is, with all the restrictions placed on defensive backs at the time, the statistics proved to be a washout in regards to the intent.

If history repeats itself, this latest clamping down on pass defense will result in nothing more than a shift in defensive strategy from man-to-man coverage to zone coverage. There could even be more emphasis on nickel and dime defenses to provide better coverage to all areas of the field. Smart defensive coordinators will make adjustments in their philosophies to compensate for the restriction on downfield contact. Instead of taking the chance of getting penalized for tight coverage on a receiver one-on-one, DBs will sit back in the zone, wait for the ball to be in the air, and close in for the kill when it arrives at its intended target.

In fact, there could even be an increase in injured receivers from having their heads taken off by a guided missile known as a defensive back. Then coaches will be forced to resort to quick short passes in order to protect their receivers and, presto, out goes the long passing game league officials are trying to promote.

Not only that, but if defenses revert to extra secondary personnel, the running game will open up wide and offenses will hand the ball off more with only five or six guys in the box. Then defenses will gamble and blitz more, opening the passing game back up and we're right back where we started: pure football.

Only time will tell if the rule will do any good in increasing offensive production and scoring. After a couple of years when defensive backs learn how to finagle their way around the rule, a la offensive holding where linemen hold on nearly every play, but know how to do it without the officials seeing it, and officials throw flags less and less, like with excessive celebration, football will return to normal with receivers being covered like a glove the length of the field.

Defensive backs are claiming the league is treating receivers like "sissies" who need to be coddled like quarterbacks once were, and maybe that's true to a degree. Receivers have actually had it pretty good compared to how it was 30 years ago and beyond. Guys like Dick Lane, Larry Wilson, and Johnny Robinson probably couldn't play under today's conditions. Downfield contact wasn't just contact, it was assault and battery.

Conversely, who knows how many more yards and touchdowns receivers like Lance Alworth, Gary Collins, or Don Maynard would have had, had they been provided the luxury of "hands-off" defense?

So as the season begins next weekend, keep a close eye on downfield matchups and see how the new rule affects passing and defending. I have a feeling we'll hear a lot of "illegal contact" calls throughout the year.

Comments and Conversation

September 8, 2004


Get your fact’s straight buddy. It’s not a rule change. It’s simply increasing the awareness of an existing rule.

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