If you're looking for scapegoats for the league's controversial new emphasis on the rules that govern the interaction between receivers and cornerbacks, you do not have to look any further than last year's two Super Bowl teams. The perception is, right or wrong, that Denver's heavy use of the receiver "pick play" helped bring about a re-focusing on offensive pass interference rules, and that Seattle's aggressive and "handsy" approach to coverage motivated the league to re-evaluate how officials are calling illegal contact and defensive holding.
The number of defensive holding calls has declined significantly since the last time the rules were emphasized back in 2004, and evidently the fear of a copycat epidemic prompted a reexamination. "Apparently the number [of defensive holding calls] was so low last year at 38, that [the NFL Competition Committee] decided they've got to do something," said John Clayton recently in a radio interview. "And they also realized that Seattle had great success, and there are more teams that are going to try to copy it."
The instances of defensive holding and illegal contact during this preseason have exploded, almost to the point of absurdity.
Depending on who you ask, these emphases are simultaneously reactive and preemptive. Either way, the NFL Competition Committee -- made up of owners, coaches, and general managers -- has deemed that changes to these areas of officiating are priority number one for 2014.
While the offensive pass interference call may be more prominent in 2014 (I have already seen the call being made more liberally), the instances of defensive holding and illegal contact during this preseason have exploded, almost to the point of absurdity.
The league is not kidding around. One study done by Sports On Earth's Mike Tanier after the first couple weeks of the preseason showed that the frequency of defensive holding flags jumped five-fold from the same period in 2013, and the instances of illegal contact jumped ten-fold.
This screencap from the Philly-New England game in Week 2 kind of says it all:
If this rate holds ...
Before we talk about the historical and long-term implications, it makes sense to try and understand the rules themselves. First, it should be pointed out that for these particular issues -- defensive holding and illegal contact -- there are no rules changes, only a re-emphasis on how they're observed and called.
From the league:
Per the official NFL Rulebook for 2014, here's what constitutes "legal" contact:
Legal Contact Within Five Yards:
Within five yards of the line of scrimmage, a defensive player may chuck (intentionally contact) an eligible receiver in front of him. The defender is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone so long as the receiver has not moved beyond a point that is even with the defender.
Did you know they call it "chuck?" I've never heard that. Who uses that?
Anyway, this is popularly known as the jam. The Seahawks vehemently teach this and a big part of the reason they've developed their reputation for mugging is because of how aggressive they are, legally, in the first five yards.
Here's what you can't do in the first five yards:
Illegal Contact Within Five Yards:
Within the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender may not make original contact in the back of a receiver, nor may he maintain contact after the receiver has moved beyond a point that is even with the defender. Note: If a defender chucks a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage, loses contact, and then contacts him again within the five-yard zone, it is a foul for illegal contact.
You have to jam the receiver in front of you, and hold that jam through the five yards. You can't re-jam a receiver once he's beaten you off the line, and you certainly can't hold him from behind. It's probably worth noting here that the Seahawks, despite their reputation, are as well-coached a secondary unit that you could find in the NFL, and have not been marched back with an illegal contact penalty in the last two seasons. Seattle has mastered the art of the jam.
And how about when those five yards are up:
Illegal Contact Beyond Five-Yard Zone:
Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him. A defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver. Note: If a defender contacts a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage and maintains contact with him, he must release the receiver as they exit the five-yard zone. If the defender maintains contact beyond five yards, it is illegal contact.
So, after five yards, a defensive back can use his hands or arms to defend himself or protect himself against contact initiated by a receiver. There's subjectivity in there, of course, because deciding who initiates contact is somewhat tough to determine. Also, and this might be an important article:
Incidental Contact Beyond Five-Yard Zone:
Beyond the five-yard zone, incidental contact may exist between receiver and defender.
More subjectivity there, certainly.
"If you look at the game, there are so many opportunities when guys engage just kind of as they're moving into their positions when hands are on guys," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said following his team's win over the Chargers in Preseason Week 2.
"And it goes both ways now because they did emphasize offensive pass interference as well as the defensive issues. And so what's happened is that now that it's an elevated awareness, they're seeing so many more contacts that they would have considered 'incidental' in the past and so we're getting those calls that really don't have any bearing on the play recognized as penalties."
The early numbers for the increase in defensive holding certainly support this -- over the first two weeks of the 2013 preseason there were 5 of these calls, but 49 this year.
"Everything changes (between the first five and past five yards)," explained NFL Senior Director of Officiating Al Riveron recently. "You get past five yards, you can no longer redirect a receiver running his route. There still can be incidental contact, and there is, sometimes caused by an offensive player, or a defensive player, but anything that redirects a receiver or takes him out of his pattern will be a foul."
As for the other point of emphasis...
Per the official NFL Rulebook for 2014, here's the definition of defensive holding:
Article 6 Defensive Holding:
It is defensive holding if a player grasps an eligible offensive player (or his jersey) with his hands, or extends an arm or arms to cut off or encircle him.
The main thing to watch here is the jersey grabbing that has become a commonplace "savvy veteran move," something that has mostly gone unenforced of late.
The goal? "It's a matter of consistency," said Riveron. "We take out the thought process, the gray area, the 'Well, did he run through it, did it really impede him running the pattern?' Now, everyone knows, you grab a shirt, - if you grab the shirt, period, it's a foul - if you impede the receiver from running his route after five yards, it's a foul. Before, we would stand there and go, 'Well, did it impede the play, did it hold him up? Was the receiver able to run through it?' Now it takes all that judgment out. Now, you hold him, you pull the shirt, you put your arm around his waist and turn him, it's a foul. Whether in anybody's view it impeded him from running his route or not, it's a foul."
The increase in instances of defensive holding over the first two weeks of the preseason over last year's is nearly as dramatic as that of illegal contact -- 20 last year have turned into 100 in the same time period this season.
Now, because "everyone knows it's the Legion of Boom rule" emphasis, as Earl Thomas recently said, I'm going to use an example from the Seahawks' second preseason game in which cornerback Tharold Simon had a 105-yard pick-six negated from a borderline illegal contact penalty. It's not a perfect example, but it helps to illustrate the rules and the new emphasis.
The NFL's official game-book reads as such:
2-6-SEA 6 (2:11 3rd Quarter) (Shotgun) K.Clemens pass intended for D.Inman INTERCEPTED by T.Simon at SEA -5. T.Simon for 105 yards, TOUCHDOWN NULLIFIED by Penalty. PENALTY on SEA-T.Simon, Illegal Contact
The Chargers had the Hawks on the ropes with a 2nd down from Seattle's 6-yard line when Simon made what looked to be a great play on the football, eventually returning it all the way back downfield (I spared you that worthless 30-odd seconds in the gif).
As you can see above, however, a yellow flag comes flying into the screen right as the ball is intercepted, negating Simon's subsequent effort to find the endzone for the first time, he relayed afterwords, since high school.
"I've got to see it again," Pete Carroll said when asked about the penalty after the game, "but I thought it was a perfectly executed two-hand jam and press-and-turn-and roll-with-the-ball, and he made a great play. It was a great play."
"We'll see if it was 7 yards down the field," he added, though. "I don't know. If it was, it was a legit call."
And, that's the big question. The seven yards that Carroll mentions is in reference to a long-standing de facto cushion of about two yards past the five-yard delineation.
"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 told Peter King recently. "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."
Of course, the tough part of this is that officials aren't exactly standing there on the five-yard marker, making sure the corner stops his jam precisely when he's supposed to. It's sometimes pretty tough to see exactly five yards on the field of play when guys are running around full speed, even if you have a yard line in mind.
"Generally the two wideouts, the two widest wide receivers, are covered by the field judge, and the side judge, who are anywhere from 22 to 24 yards deep on the football field," explained Al Riveron. "Now, when you get a number-two and number-three receiver, you have a wing official, and/or a back judge watching him. But it's incumbent upon us, the officials, to put ourselves in the right position to get all the angles, to be able to see who's doing what to whom."
And, that point of emphasis showed up on this play, where the exact spot that Simon disengaged from his two-hand jam (you can see the defender jam to the shoulder, first with his inside hand, and then shortly after with his outside hand to the other shoulder pad area) drifted from five yards to maybe six or seven.
The one-yard line would be the five-yard line of demarcation -- but where does Simon actually let go and start to play the ball in the air? That's the major question, and as Carroll noted during the week following the play, "the league came back and said that was not a penalty."
At least there's hope.
The last time the NFL re-emphasized the way illegal contact and defensive holding were called was back in 2004, shortly after the Patriots won the Super Bowl title. Like this year year's re-emphasis, Peyton Manning was on the losing end to that Patriots team (not the Super Bowl that time, but in the AFC Championship), and as Mark Maske wrote back in 2008...
"Many observers attributed the competition committee's action to the Patriots' defensive play in their 24-14 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game on Jan. 18, 2004. The Patriots intercepted Colts quarterback Peyton Manning four times that day and Indianapolis's receivers were upset because they felt that several holding infractions had gone uncalled by officials at key moments. Bill Polian, the Colts' influential team president, was particularly angry. The Colts' complaints were aired to the competition committee, which also studied the Patriots' defensive play against the "Greatest Show on Turf" when they beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, 2002."
And voila, an emphasis on new rules! What happened last time around should probably frighten you a little bit. As Maske wrote, "The officials did as instructed in the 2004 season, and the number of illegal-contact penalties called on defensive players skyrocketed." Illegal contact fouls went up from 79 (in 2003), to 191 (in 2004) and passing yardage exploded.
So, the question becomes, is the NFL simply doing this as a behavior modification ploy before the season starts or is this something that will continue at this rate all year long, as it did in 2004? Riveron admitted prior to the season that, yes, "Initially, especially the first couple of preseason games, until the players get used to the new emphasis on it, I'm sure there will be (a spike in calls)."
VP of Officiating, Dean Blandino, said much of the same after seeing the results of the first two weeks. "We expected it. I think there's an adjustment period for our officials, for the coaches and our players. When the regular season rolls around, I think everybody will be on the same page and I think you'll see those foul totals go down."
However (and this is a big one):
"The way the game’s being officiated now is the way it’s going to be officiated when the season begins."
"We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts," said Blandino. "The way the game’s being officiated now is the way it’s going to be officiated when the season begins. We have to remain consistent. I knew we’d see a spike in calls when we put out these points of emphasis. But coaches adjust, and players adjust. They have to, and they know it. And we’ll correct our officials when we feel they’re being over-zealous with certain calls."
"I believe that once you see the players adjust, you won’t see this exorbitant number of calls. Downfield contact was under-officiated last year."
Additionally, teams will not be able, at least in theory, to lean on the human element that officials will not want to throw too many flags and bog the game down. "We have told our officials: don't let that be in the back of your mind," said Riveron. "Do not allow the teams to tell you how many flags you have to throw, or are allowed to throw. If it just so happens that the same defensive player, a few plays later, commits a foul, to be consistent, we have to throw the flag."
So, can we expect, say, a 44 percent increase in penalties in 2014 over 2013 because of these new rules emphases?
Maybe not that bad, says John Clayton, but still a good jump should be anticipated: "Ok, so [the frequency of penalties called is] going to taper off [in the regular season], but how do you taper off from 44 percent? What's it going to be, 20 percent? 20 percent is going to be bad."
"So, [teams and players will] make adjustments," Clayton continued, "but I think they'll still keep throwing flags.... I just can't see them going back to last year and virtually not calling these things."
Alright, so what do you do?
Ultimately, teams will just have to adapt to these new emphases, or risk getting caught up in the jet wash of the NFL's attempts to stop under-officiating defensive holding and illegal contact.
Carroll, who said recently that he and his staff take a lot of pride in coaching up their players to the rules of the game, and the Seahawks have been very proactive in figuring out where that line for contact will be this year.
"These corners, and these guys in the secondary," noted John Clayton, "they're smart, they know how to adjust their game. The fact is, with as much contact as they make -- and they try to mug you at the line of scrimmage to those five yards -- there was only one illegal contact called on them in the last two years. And, you notice in the first preseason game, when everybody was getting flagged for illegal contact, Seattle didn't have any."
By the way, Seattle is the only team in the NFL this preseason that still hasn't had a defensive holding call go against them either. That's not an accident -- it's teaching your players to execute within how the rules are applied.
"We've been forewarned," said Seahawks' defensive backs coach Kris Richard recently, "and it's not experimental, it's an emphasis of the rules that are already in place. Typically when you're dealing with these preseason games, you tend to get more penalties because it's just kind of a re-acclimation period, for everyone."
"I get asked the question a lot," Richard continued, "in regards to our style of play, and whether we're changing anything, and we're not going to change anything that we do. Because, we've always coached according to the rules. Yeah, there may be some contact, and it could happen after five yards, if the wide receiver creates it. We have five yards, we're able to use them then. We can't just disappear after five yards. We have the right to our space on the football field. If our hands are off and clean, we can't just magically disappear. Now the receiver is the one creating the contact -- leaning against us, pushing off against us, trying to create the space. If he's the one doing that, essentially he's the one that's fouling."
Subjective, yes, but does a league whose teams scored more points than any time in its history last year really need to give offenses more of the benefit of the doubt?
"The simple fact is that aggressive coverage is a part of the game," says Richard. "Nobody wants to allow wide receivers just to run through their zone or through their man coverages without being contested. But, you have to do it without, quote-unquote, cheating, you have to do it without fouling, and if we're not doing that, we deserve to have a penalty. If you're not playing within the rules, then you deserve to have a penalty thrown on you."
As for that Tharold Simon play that I broke down above?
"The call was illegal contact, and we've heard that if it was a normal game situation, it would not have been called. So, that's positive. The positive pulling out of this is: I don't know any other way to coach that play!"
The NFL is going to crack down on illegal contact and defensive holding, so prepare yourselves for that. The teams that can coach their players to adapt will have the best shot at fighting the NFL's apparent obsession with more passing and more scoring. Still, expect that the best passing teams will be even more prolific in 2014 than they've been over the past few seasons. Which is actually pretty insane.