A few minutes after the Packers' 28-25 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday, Green Bay cornerback Al Harris stood at his Lambeau Field locker, a little angry and very much...
A few minutes after the Packers’ 28-25 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday, Green Bay cornerback Al Harris stood at his Lambeau Field locker, a little angry and very much confused. He had been called for pass interference or making illegal contact with a Jacksonville receiver three times during the game, and he still wasn’t exactly sure why.
“It was getting to the point where you can’t play,” Harris, a seven-year veteran, told reporters. “Referees are only human, but it’s getting to the point where someone’s got to be held accountable. Basically, they take you out of what you learned from Day 1 … What are we supposed to do as defenders?”
All around the NFL this season, defensive backs are unhappy about a rule prohibiting contact with a receiver 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The rule, on the books since 1978, became a point of emphasis for game officials this season, mandated by the league’s competition committee and approved by a majority of team owners last March. The penalty is 5 yards, with an automatic first down.
Through Week 14, game officials had called 164 illegal contact penalties, up dramatically from the 66 whistled through Week 14 of the 2003 season. Mike Pereira, the league’s director of officiating, said there also has been a slight spike up in illegal contact calls in the last three weeks, a trend he attributes to contending teams doing whatever it takes in their drive to earn a playoff spot.
“When you get to this point of the season, a lot more is at stake,” Pereira said. “When you see it rise in Week 12, 13 and 14, it makes sense that teams may have tried to resort to their old tactics and hope they don’t get called for it. We’re at crunch time now, and maybe teams are playing it the way they did in the past.”
Scoring is up to 43.1 points a game, the fourth-highest total in 37 years and an increase over last year’s 41.7 points a game. Total yardage is up by 20 yards per game over last season, to 656.1 yards. Passing yardage is up by 23 yards a game to 423.3 yards, the fifth-highest total in league history.
The average gain per pass completion is up, and so are touchdown passes. At this time last year, there were 5.21 completions per game of more than 20 yards; this year it’s 5.82, a 12-percent increase. Pass completions of more than 40 yards a game are up by 22.5 percent, from .89 per game last season to 1.09 this year.
Meantime, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who plays at home today against San Diego, is one touchdown pass short of tying Dan Marino’s record of 48 set in 1984. He also has 4,168 passing yards, 916 yards short of matching Marino’s mark of 5,084.
According to the league, in the season Marino set those records, game officials also were operating with a point of emphasis on the illegal contact rule.
Still, despite increases in all those offensive numbers, Pereira and Rich McKay, co-chairman of the Competition Committee and general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, said they’re satisfied that the heightened officiating scrutiny on illegal contact is working exactly the way the committee expected. The statistical jumps are not significantly out of whack, they indicated, and the game has hardly been reinvented despite the complaints of many defensive backs, as well as some disgruntled head coaches.
“My response to the players is that we’re playing the game by the rules,” Pereira said. “I didn’t write the rules, but our officials are enforcing them. The illegal contact rule was written to create balance between the offense and the defense. We became a little lax over the years in getting our guys to officiate it, and that’s probably my fault. But we’re calling it the way it’s supposed to be called. It’s up to them to adjust to it.”
Washington’s Joe Gibbs wasn’t at all pleased about several calls on his defenders in his team’s victory over San Francisco last Saturday.
“I don’t think they’re calling it very much except on us, and it’s more than 50 yards. I can almost count on it,” he said. “So far I think we’ve had, what, five that shouldn’t have been called, and they were called. I’m still looking for the one for us. I’m just going to keep throwing it deep and sooner or later maybe we’ll get two or three. That’s just my opinion and I’ll probably get fined for it. … It’s certainly not like how they talked about calling it.”
Baltimore’s Brian Billick also was upset over four illegal contact calls in one series against Ravens defenders, including two on veteran cornerback Deion Sanders, in his team’s loss to Indianapolis last Sunday night.
Asked this past week if he had seen changes in the way illegal contact had been called this season, Billick said tersely, “I did the other night.”
Did he think the penalty was being called more often than it should have been?
“I did the other night,” he said.
“All of a sudden they seemed to come,” he added. “I don’t know if there was any agenda involved; it was odd that it came out, the calls, in that series in that way. It was questionable, not just in terms of the rule but the way the game had been called the whole game, and all of a sudden now. It was a little hard to understand.”
Still, Billick also doesn’t think the illegal contact rule should be revisited in the offseason.
“As with all the rules, you hope for an element of consistency (in officiating); they strive for that, and I understand that there are going to be mistakes made,” he said. “It’s unfortunate they were all made the other night, but I’m comfortable with the rule.”
Ravens defensive back Gary Baxter was not.
“I’ve never seen a game where you have four (illegal contacts) back to back,” he said after the Colts game. “It’s almost like you were scratching your head saying, maybe they are putting (Manning) down there to hurry up and let him get the record or whatever. As a player, we didn’t like that, but we just kept fighting.”
In Green Bay, veteran safety Darren Sharper also was critical of the officiating against his team in the Jacksonville game.
“It makes the game like no touching,” he said. “I always thought this was a contact sport, but it seems as though you can’t make too much contact. It makes it tough to play defense, but that’s how the league wants it. They want teams to score points.”