The Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippen is driving to the basket, and no defensive player can lay a hand on him. The St. Louis Blues' Brett Hull is steaming toward the goal, and no defenseman can poke-check him. Those scenarios are akin to what has happened in the NFL through the season's first two weeks. The defense is at a decided disadvantage now that officials are enforcing the long-dormant rule that defenders can't touch receivers once they have traveled five yards past the line of scrimmage.
In an attempt to put more scoring and more big plays back in the game, the NFL Competition Committee decided in March to put some teeth into the rule that forbids a defender to make contact with a receiver beyond the five-yard bump zone. The early returns are in. and offenses certainly seem to be benefiting from the decision. The games of the past two weeks have produced an average of 55 more passing yards than the corresponding games last season. Already, Andre Rison of the Falcons has 26 catches. Drew Bledsoe of the Patriots has 801 passing yards. The reason: Aggressive cornerbacks—Cris Dishman of the Oilers, for instance, or Ray Crockett of the Broncos—have adopted a more passive style of play in order to avoid penalties.
"Any wide receiver can get open now," Giant defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said last week. Trying to even the odds, Nolan now has his corners lining up two to three yards closer to the line, to make sure that they can at least jostle the receiver in the bump zone. "A team can get a guy off the street and he can catch balls," Nolan added. "All he has to do is run, knowing he's protected. [Enforcing the rule] has lowered the standards to be a professional."
"The NFL got exactly what it wanted—more offense." Crockett said. "Look at all the receivers running free early in the season."
The thing that bugs defensive backs—and rightfully so—is that offensive players are still allowed to use the same tricks they always have. "All receivers have got what I call the Charles Barkley box-out move, where they turn to the quarterback and back into the defensive back." said safety Ronnie Lott of the Jets. "Now they've got a bigger advantage than ever, because we can't touch them."
While preparing to face Michael Irvin of the Cowboys on Sunday, Dishman said. "You look at Michael, and you can see he's an aggressive offensive player. By that I mean, when he runs down the field, he pushes off. In the past, when Michael pushed off, I pushed back. Rod Woodson [of the Steelers] is the same type of aggressive corner I am. I watched Rod on film this week from the Dallas-Pittsburgh game, and four or five times Michael pushed Rod downfield. And Rod couldn't do anything." In the Cowboys' 20-17 win over the Oilers on Sunday, Irvin was held to three catches, but Dishman got more help than usual from a rotating band of Oilers who double-teamed Irvin on most patterns.
It's too early to predict that this rule-tightening will cripple defenses over the long haul. But the NFL is constantly tinkering with the game to balance offense with defense, and it looks as if this passing-friendly rule has tipped the balance significantly toward the offense.
George Seifert has been a defensive specialist for his entire coaching career, and the 49er boss is a conservative fellow. But he comes off as something of a radical in an SI poll of coaches on the subject of the two-point conversion, which is new in the NFL this fall. Last week we asked each of the 29 NFL coaches—including Tom Coughlin of the Jacksonville franchise, which begins play next September—what he would do if, with 10 seconds left in the game, his team scored a touchdown that took it to within one point of the opponent: Would he kick the extra point to tie? Or would he go for two to win? The results: Twenty-one coaches said they would kick for the tie; five said that their decision would depend on a number of vague factors; and one, the Falcons' June Jones, said he would go for the tie at home, where the crowd would give his team a lift in overtime, and for the win on the road. Only two coaches, the Bucs' Sam Wyche, a noted iconoclast, and Seifert said they would go for the win. Seifert's reasoning: "I don't want to leave my fate up to a coin flip before overtime."