Law: Long, hard season for DBs

Though it wasn't the case in Foxboro, defensive backs believe the "chuck" rule will influence games.

Updated: October 14, 2004, 2:26 PM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

FOXBORO, Mass. -- In the offseason the league decided to crack down against illegal contact and holding of eligible receivers beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage. And Thursday night's nationally televised league opener, a rematch of last year's AFC championship game between the Colts and Patriots -- considered the inspiration for the "point of emphasis" -- was to be a prime (-time) opportunity for the officials to make their point.

And while stricter enforcement of the "chuck" rule ultimately didn't make the difference in New England's 27-24 victory, Patriots safety Rodney Harrison is certain the rule will at some point. A combined 564 net passing yards and the five thrown flags by referee Mike Carey's crew in the second half for either illegal contact or defensive holding provided evidence.

Rodney Harrison
Harrison
"This rule is really going to affect the outcome of games," said the Patriots' veteran safety, who, in the third quarter, drew his team's first holding penalty, though it was declined. "Every time the ball goes up you have to sit back and hold your breath.

"It's such a judgment call. As a defensive back, you never know. Every time you're down field and you try to knock a ball down or you're going for the ball, you have to look around because they're calling it and they're going to keep calling it."

And Harrison doesn't expect the officials, whom someone in the league office estimated called twice as many contact and holding penalties as usual during the preseason (some of which can be attributed to increased playing times for less-skilled players), to keep their hankies in their pockets as the season goes along.

"They didn't implement this rule for the officials to lay off on it," Harrison said. "They're going to keep it and it's going to get worse as playoff time comes."

Worse, that is, only if your job is to cover the receivers who are to run untouched through your secondary. Better if you're one of those emancipated receivers.

"This is going to be a long, hard season for defensive backs and safeties," predicted Ty Law, whose rag doll treatment of the Colts' Marvin Harrison in January stands as the definitive play for what has been dubbed locally the "Patriot Act." Law, by the way, told reporters that he noticed Harrison lining up farther off the line of scrimmage than usual so to get a cleaner release.

"It's going to be a better statistical year for wide receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks," Law said.

Precisely what the league wants. That perceived bias is exactly what frustrates defenders like Rodney Harrison most.

"They want these offenses to score, they want people to be interested in high-scoring games," said Harrison, whose holding penalty was one of three such infractions called against New England, compared to two on the Colts (one accepted). "I just think football should be football, and stop favoring the offenses. But that's the way it is and we'll just try to abide by it."

It's such a judgment call. As a defensive back, you never know. Every time you're down field and you try to knock a ball down or you're going for the ball, you have to look around because they're calling it and they're going to keep calling it.
Pats S Rodney Harrison

More than merely abide by it, officials want to see more of defensive backs turning and running with receivers and less chucking. League director of officiating Mike Pereira, watching the game from the Gillette Stadium press box, liked what he saw from both defenses during what he described as a "clean" first half.

After the game, Pereira acknowledged that there were a couple of borderline contact calls, one of which, presumably, came early in the fourth quarter, when Tyrone Poole bumped Marvin Harrison just enough to where it appeared to redirect the receiver. That's a red flag for the officials, and it will generally draw a yellow one.

To be clear: The officials aren't encouraged to penalize defensive backs for touch fouls, or "feeling," only initiated contact (unless it's for protection) that disrupts the receiver's route and the jersey grabbing that was so rampant in both conference title games last year. Also, if there is contact but the quarterback is in the process of throwing the ball in another direction, there is no foul.

Something that stood out Thursday night: During an announcement of a holding penalty, Carey specified that the quarterback was in the pocket at the time of the infraction. Defensive coaches certainly have made their players aware that if the quarterback ventures outside the tight ends, all bets are off in the secondary.

There were fewer flags than expected in the first game, and Pereira said he was satisfied with its overall flow. "It's the kind of game we want to see all year long."

Michael Smith is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.

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