Eagles test-drive the league's rules emphasis

MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER LeSean McCoy participates in a drill during yesterday's camp session, attended by NFL officials.
MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER LeSean McCoy participates in a drill during yesterday's camp session, attended by NFL officials.
Posted: August 04, 2014

NFL OFFICIALS worked the part of yesterday's training-camp session where receivers went one-on-one with defensive backs. Snap after snap after snap, yellow flags flew.

Sometimes the offender was the receiver, sometimes the defender, but it seemed to happen on just about every play, for more than a dozen plays.

"It was [every play], pretty much, wasn't it?" back judge Tony Steratore said when asked about the frequent flagging by a reporter in an information session about new rules emphases for 2014. "That's probably due to the fact that there have been quite a few changes in regards to the passing game, especially prior to a pass being in the air . . . Illegal contact is a point of emphasis this year, again, and we're going to enforce the 5 yards [the distance from the line where contact is permitted] strictly.

"Any time you get any type of a shirt pull, regardless of whether there's an [impeding] effect or not . . . then we're going to have defensive holding in that instance," Steratore said. "That could be, I guess, maybe the players getting used to the new threshold for those fouls today."

At one point yesterday, Eagles rookie receiver Jordan Matthews was tracking a ball and put his arm out to ward off a defender. Matthews then went up and made the catch, something that would have been praised a year ago. This time, flag.

"There's a major point of emphasis this year on offensive players pushing off at the top of their route," Steratore said. "It's a cleanup on both sides of the ball."

Steratore said that if the receiver uses his arm to create space, "and he's getting an advantage over the defender, we've been instructed to tighten that up." The only exception is if contact has already been initiated by the defender.

"A lot of the flags today were offensive pass interference, which was, I think, really cool," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It allows us to use our technique without getting bullied over."

Rookie wideout Josh Huff said he thinks it will be harder "to use your body to get that little extra nudge."

Of course, what we don't know is how much of this will carry over to the regular season. It's going to be hard to throw a flag on every pass play.

"I don't know how true that will stand, but that's what they've been saying in our meetings. I've seen otherwise throughout my 7 years in the league," corner Cary Williams said after giving a synopsis of what Steratore told the players. Williams depends on being able to play physically. The trend in the league over the past several years has been to bigger corners and bigger receivers, as more contact has been allowed. Now the league seems to want to scale back.

"It just is what it is, man. You just go out there and play your technique as best as possible. They throw the flag, they throw the flag," Williams said. "Be aggressive on the next play. Forget about it and just move on . . . It's an offense-driven league."

Eagles corner Nolan Carroll said players were intentionally being physical yesterday, to see what the parameters were.

"We know they're going to throw flags, so we're trying to see how far we can take it," he said. "We're getting feedback from the refs as far as what we can do with our hands, what the receivers can't do. Right now, we know we're at a disadvantage, but we're trying to push the limits, see how far we can go. When it comes to the first preseason game, we're going to be used to knowing what we can do and what we can't do, because we've been experimenting out here with these [officials].

"We already know the receiver's got the right of way in just about everything; if we don't do our work in the 5-yard area," the receiver will run free. "Offense can get away with a lot of stuff. It's a pass-happy league. Everybody wants to see touchdowns and big plays, so that's what they're emphasizing."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly has sought bigger, more physical corners and receivers, but Kelly didn't voice any objections to the new emphases.

"Just tell us what the rules are, we play by them," Kelly said. "I think to anybody, as long as it's called the same way for all 32 teams, it doesn't bother us. Just if it's called one way one game and another way another game - but it's not like that. We are aware [of the changes]. They voted on all the stuff at the league meetings [in Orlando, Fla., in March] and presented it to us there, so we're pretty conscious of what's coming down the road."

Huff said one factor to keep in mind is that "the refs can't see everything."

Steratore addressed other issues as well:

* He agreed that the proliferation of hurry-up and no-huddle offenses, like the Eagles', is "more demanding" for officials. "It's just another challenge, the way the game evolves," Steratore said. "Our guys work real hard at that."

* There was a lot of talk last year about whether officials would be willing to set the ball as quickly as Kelly would like. Kelly never complained. "NFL games, they run themselves," Steratore said. As the season wore on, "I didn't hear much about it . . . I think it basically shook itself out as a nonissue."

* There will be tighter enforcement of taunting and other kinds of unsportsmanlike conduct this season. "This is here to stay. The league is very, very serious about the image of the game," Steratore said. "In my 15 years it's progressively gotten tighter and tighter. We don't want players in each others' faces, we don't want players using any type of racial slurs, or sexual preference or gender slurs - there's no place for it in the game. The league office and the competition committee have made it very clear to us what our marching orders are. It's zero tolerance."

On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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