NFL opener: 'No-touch rule' opens door for the little guy

Viewers can expect to see longer passes, and receivers running at defenders, as refs keep closer tabs on illegal contact

Call it the "bump and run," the "chuck" or the "five-yard touch."

Now that the swivel-hip singing routines of Jessica Simpson, Destiny's Child, and others in Thursday night's kickoff bash for the NFL are history, fan eyeballs are shifting to another kind of gridiron gyration.

All three terms refer to illegal contact by defenders with pass receivers who are running downfield awaiting aerial delivery from quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage. The rules have long stated that once crossing five yards past the line of scrimmage, a receiver can't be touched.

But after complaints that last year's Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, routinely violated the rule, NFL officials have promised to crack down. The result could have a giant effect on how offenses are run, how many receivers go where, how long passes are attempted - and what size and speed of athlete is there to catch them. Not to mention who wins the Super Bowl.

"This is going to be issue No. 1 across the National Football League all season," says Vinnie Iyer, NFL projects editor for the Sporting News. "Depending on how officials choose to enforce this, it could lead to lots of longer passes, more exciting plays, and different teams being in contention in every area of the league."

The issue came to a head last season after the Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game, and the Carolina Panthers beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship. Both losing teams scrutinized game films and claimed that not enough illegal-contact penalties were being called.

League officials studied stats between seasons and decided both teams may have a point. Of 17,585 pass plays last season, officials called illegal contact only 79 times - only once every 223 pass plays. They also discovered a decrease in average passing yards. League representatives have already traveled to team training camps to show films of what will no longer be tolerated.

If the new enforcement goes as planned, analysts say NFL fans will notice changes in the way defensive backs lean, grab, pull, and push on receivers. They also say receivers are likely to try to exploit the new mandates by running at, rather than away from, defenders. Smaller receivers, such as the Colts' Marvin Harrison and St. Louis Rams' Torry Holt, will be at a lesser disadvantage. And prepare to watch teams using more plays that run three and four receivers at once.

"I know people want to see offense, but it's getting ridiculous," said the San Diego Chargers' cornerback, Quentin Jammer, in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. "They need to go back and look at how the game's supposed to be played."

The change in rules enforcement is considered by others as another way the NFL - now entering its 85th year - is trying to keep a level playing field for all teams. Such practices - alongside salary caps, draft rules giving the top college players to the last-place teams, and "wildcard" teams in playoffs - make for a healthier league by keeping more teams in contention and more fans on the edge of their seat, they say.

"The NFL has figured out how to create a league where the winners don't win too big and the losers don't lose too big. So every year, every team has a fairly good chance to win on Sunday," says Roger Abrams, dean of Northeastern University School of Law and an authority on sports law. He and others see the constant vigilance to keep parity between teams as one reason why the NFL draws bigger TV audiences and higher ticket prices than other major sports leagues with dynasties that keep rich teams at the top.

"The [NFL is] constantly looking to provide a brilliant product that is beloved by the American people. With that goal, they've become the best-managed sports business, period," says Mr. Abrams.

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