PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Bill Belichick looked as if he'd just been handed a $45 bill for breakfast, which is about the norm at a hotel like The Breakers, where the NFL owners meetings are being held.
The object of his disaffection was a different kind of bill, however, one that came due this week not only for the Patriots but for every defensive back in the league. The ramifications of the officiating jobs in the conference championship games hit home yesterday when the league announced it would direct its officials to more strictly enforce both the pass interference rule and the illegal contact beyond 5 yards rule. Although the Competition Committee said the heightened enforcement was more a reaction to overall passing yardage in the league being down, Belichick and Carolina general manager Marty Hurney believed, as did many other NFL coaches and general managers, that it was a direct reaction to the complaints of the Colts and Eagles, who said their receivers were manhandled in those playoff losses.
Much was made of Patriots cornerback Ty Law throwing Colts receiver Marvin Harrison out of bounds on a pass route and of two other plays late in the AFC Championship game when the Colts claimed tight end Marcus Pollard was held and interfered with on the final series.
"Everyone felt that defensive backs have been allowed to get away with more things the last couple of seasons," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who is also the Competition Committee cochairman and a former NFL defensive back himself. "You see it on go routes where a cornerback grabs a receiver as he goes downfield. The defensive back is not supposed to materially affect the receiver's progress. If he's grabbed, he's materially affected." So, too, will be aggressive secondaries like the ones run by the Patriots and Panthers, who reached the Super Bowl in large part because of the swarming style of their pass defenses. Belichick seemed irked by the proposed vigilance.
"I don't really understand what we're trying to do," Belichick said. "We sat in there and watched all the film. All the coaches were in there. When you put the films on and they say, `Here's a violation.' Clearly, it's a violation. No problem. Then they put [other] films on and say, `This is a violation.' What did the guy do wrong? What do you want him to do?
"What is the violation? `Well, he can't do this and he can't do that.' You've got a [referee] 25 yards away trying to determine that? The guy who stands 25 yards away on the sidelines? I think [head of officials] Mike [Pereira] should explain that one to you, because he obviously understands it a lot better than I do.
"The language in the rules hasn't changed, but something else has. I'm not really sure what that is. Every year they liberalize offensive holding. That's been liberalized for the last 20 years. There are always different points of emphasis."
Hurney said, "This is bad. This will really hurt us. We're built around aggressive defense. How are you going to play pass defense if everything you do is interference?"
It would seem more than coincidence that two members of the subcommittee that made the recommendation were Colts coach Tony Dungy and St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz, who also claimed his receivers had been mauled by the Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago.
According to NFL statistics, the average passing yardage per team in 2003 was 200.4 yards, the lowest since 1992, when the average was 187.6 yards. That dropoff coincided with a reduction in both pass interference calls (238 to 221) and illegal contact calls (58 to 50) from the previous season. That might not in itself have led to the decision, but when coupled with the loud complaints in the two championship games, the decision was made to make it even more difficult than it has been in the past to play pass defense. . . .
Instant replay was extended for five more years by an overwhelming 29-3 vote, with only the Colts, Chiefs, and Bengals voting against it . . . A change also has been made to add a third replay challenge if a team is successful in its use of its first two challenges. The feeling was that many plays early in a game that might be challenged and overturned were not being challenged because coaches did not want to be without a challenge late in a game. Under the old rule, once the two challenges were used, even if they were upheld, there were no more challenges . . . A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that rather than grant the NFL a stay of a lower court ruling that made Ohio State sophomore running back Maurice Clarett, USC wide receiver Mike Williams, and other underclassmen who hadn't been out of high school for at least three years eligible for the April 24 draft, it would hear the appeal April 19 and rule before the draft. League officials were elated by the ruling, feeling that it indicates their case is a strong one. NFL attorney Jeff Pash said, "I think there is a very substantial chance [Clarett] will not be in the draft."