Friday, August 1, 2008

They're playing by the (new) rules

NFL officials give players tutorial on changes for '08

Fernando Bryant on new rule changes Patriots cornerback Fernando Bryant talks about the new rule changes for 2008, focussing in on the force-out rule along the sidelines.

By Baxter Holmes

FOXBOROUGH - Laird Hayes, a Princeton graduate and professor at Orange County College, said in his 13-year NFL officiating career, he has run into the forceout call three times.

"I've got them all right but frankly a couple of times, I was hoping I was right," Hayes said at Gillette Stadium yesterday.

The key to the call - which is judging whether a receiver would have had two feet inbounds on a catch if a defender hadn't pushed him out - is watching the feet first, then quickly glancing up to see if the receiver has control of the ball.

"That's a hard call," said Hayes, who is one of three officials attending Patriots training camp for three days to work with players on the rules and to referee team situations. The officials will also be at camp today and tomorrow.

The forceout rule was changed at the owners' meetings in the offseason and now a receiver must have two feet inbounds on a catch.

"It's very simple now," said sixth-year head linesman Phil McKinnely. "You've got to catch the ball, have control of it, have both feet down - simple. You don't have to process a whole lot, think a whole lot."

The change is to afford "both the receiver and defender equal opportunity to complete the play," the NFL stated.

It is one of six rule changes or additions, notably: the removal of the 5-yard incidental facemask penalty; instant replay implemented on field-goal and extra-point attempts; and teams can designate two defensive players to have radios in their helmets, although only one can be on the field.

Although the forceout rule is gone, Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't coaching receivers differently.

"We still try to get our feet down," he said. "We try to do it the same way and if we're forced out, then we're forced out, but there isn't much else we can do."

What does change, Belichick said, is how defenders play receivers near the sideline.

"Now I think there is a little bit more opportunity for the defender to play the man as opposed to the ball and just try to knock the player out [of bounds] rather than knock the ball loose," Belichick said.

Cornerback Fernando Bryant, in his 10th season, favors the change because it allows defensive backs to be more physical.

"They should've always had that rule in my eyes," he said. "This is the National Football League. If you can't get two feet in, so what? It changes the way you're going to play on the sidelines. Sometimes you weren't as forceful because you didn't want to push them out and just give them the route because most of the times, it was going to go in their favor.

"Now, you can be aggressive. Hey, if they can get them down, they get them down, but now we can be more aggressive on the sideline and in the back of the end zone."

Third-year wideout Chad Jackson said knowing your location on the field is the key to running a sideline route, but he said the change doesn't favor either unit. But, Jackson said, the task of getting two feet inbounds is more challenging for a receiver than the task of a defensive back stopping a receiver from making the catch.

"It's harder on the receiver because in college it's one foot, and in the NFL it's two feet, so it's harder on the receiver than the DBs," Jackson said.

Umpire Butch Hannah said one of the reasons the incidental facemask penalty was dropped was because in the last two seasons, there have been 29 and 26 incidental facemask penalties, respectively, down from nearly 100 per season in the early 1990s.

And like the forceout rule, the facemask penalty change has made the referees' job easier, Hannah said.

"Sometimes you see it on there but you can't get a good look," he said. "So now it's got to be a definite pull, twist, turn for it to be a foul."

Bryant said that rule plays no favorites.

"It's been an offensive game for a long time, so they're trying to even it up," he said.

Correction: Because of a reporter's error, a story in Wednesday's Sports section about referees visiting Patriots' camp incorrectly stated the college at which NFL official Laird Hayes teaches. Hayes teaches at Orange Coast College in California.

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