(1090 The Fan) — The excitement of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Tharold Simon’s first pick-six was short-lived Friday, after flags for an illegal contact penalty negated his 105-yard return for a touchdown.
Unlike the crossbar dunking celebration ban, the illegal contact penalty isn’t new; but, fans will see more of these penalties during this year’s NFL season.
NFL Vice President of officiating Dean Blandino said spotting and penalizing illegal contact will be a “point of emphasis” for officials in 2014.
Critics argue it’s a knee-jerk response to dominant performance of the Seahawks’ secondary in the 2013 season.
Speaking after the Seahawks preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, safety Earl Thomas said “it’s the Legion of Boom rule. Everyone knows that.”
So, what is illegal contact?
The illegal contact rule prevents a defensive player (typically in the secondary) from having original contact with an offensive player beyond the 5-yard zone. Here’s the exact wording:
Beyond the 5-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against the impending contact caused by a receiver. If the receiver attempts to evade the defender, the defender cannot chuck him, or extend an arm(s) to cut off or hook him, causing contact that redirects, restricts or impedes the receiver in any way. (Rule 12, Article 4, Exception 1: Illegal contact beyond 5-yard zone).
The NFL’s re-focus on illegal contact and defensive holding has already resulted in an increase in penalties. There were 86 penalties for 702 yards in just four preseason games on August 15th — 15 of which were for illegal contact, according to The Washington Post. Per same report, that number doesn’t include the defensive holding and illegal contact penalties which were declined. League-wide, there have been 104 defensive holding penalties and 55 illegal contact infractions, according to The Times-Picayune. In terms of total penalties, Seattle falls in the middle of the pack, with 23 penalties for 179 yards.
So the questions are thrown: will players in the secondary be unfairly targeted? And, will officiating in games tilt the scales to favor pass-happy offenses?
It turns out the league tried a similar approach a decade ago.
During the 2003 AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning’s receiving corp was suffocated by a particularly physical New England defense. New England went on to win Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Following the 2003 AFC Championship game, the NFL Competition Committee decided that recognizing defensive holding and illegal contact would become a point of emphasis for the 2004 season.
The decision had an impact – if a minor one – around the league. The number of penalties called in 2004 jumped to 191, compared to just 79 the year before, according to The Kansas City Star. Peyton Manning – who threw for 29 touchdowns in 2003 – threw for a then record-breaking 49 touchdowns in 2004 and boasted a 121.1 passer rating.
Another side effect of the NFL calling a “point of emphasis” with regard to illegal contact? A few defenses (unsurprisingly) suffered. According to a 2004 piece in The Spokesman Review, “seven teams [allowed] 200-plus points at the midway point.”
Mark Maske, writing for The Washington Post, argues that the 2014 “emphasis” could result in a spike in offensive stats. Maske cites the subsequent years’ record-breaking seasons by Drew Brees (who threw for over 5,000 yards in 2011), Peyton Maning and Tom Brady (both of whom surpassed the 50 touchdown marker) as evidence that increased scrutiny of secondary units allowed more opportunities for pass-dominant teams.
Will fans see a stat surge for Manning, Brees and Brady this season? What about for Luck, Kaepernick and Wilson? The answer is an incredibly boring and inconclusive: maybe, or maybe not.
Officials will stick to their guns and continue to focus on penalizing illegal contact once the regular season kicks off, but the league has also been quick to work with coaches early on: the NFL reportedly already told Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll that the penalty on Simon was incorrectly called.
Officials have also been told to monitor receivers for offensive pass interference.
“Equally as much as they’re being harder on [defensive backs], they say down the field with us [offensive players] there’s going to be no messing around. So there’s give and take there. I think it will equal out” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham told The Washington Post.
Seahawks defensive backs coach Kris Richard joined The Steve Sandmeyer Show to talk about the emphasis on illegal contact:
“The way we’ve coached, we’ve always coached within the rules. Now, there may be a bigger emphasis… but holding [has] always been holding; illegal contact [has] always been illegal contact, and we’ve always coached against it. We’ve got five yards, we want to use them. After that, we have the right to our space on the football field. So if the wide receiver is the one creating the contact, where do they want us to go? We can’t just disappear. We have our right to the spot on the field. So we’ve just got to keep our hands clean, eliminate the penalties with the holding and things of that nature… and that all comes if we keep our eyes disciplined and we just watch our coverage.”
Ultimately, games may be slightly longer and penalty-heavy at the beginning of the season while officials and players adjust to the illegal contact emphasis. But if the 2004 focus on illegal contact and defensive holding penalties taught fans anything, it’s that good teams will find a way to win. Over half of the playoff teams from the 2003 season made a return to the playoffs in 2004. And despite a record-breaking season from Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, it was the 2004 New England Patriots – a team that ranked second in points allowed, and a team whose defense was a catalyst for league scrutiny of illegal contact – that went home with a second consecutive Lombardi trophy after a 24-21 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
–Stacy Rost, 1090 The Fan
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