The year was 1978 and two rules changes would revolutionize the game of professional football.
As of the '78 season, offensive linemen were permitted to use their hands in blocking, while cornerbacks were forbidden to initiate contact with receivers beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. Instantly, the game of professional football was transformed from an exercise in brute force to a display of finesse.
What followed were years of offensive fireworks. We got "Air Coryell," the "West Coast Offense" and an explosion of points and passing yards all across the league.
• No quarterback had been the MVP in any of the six Super Bowls played prior to the 1978 season. There had been two running backs, two defensive linemen and even a safety named MVP, but no quarterback, even though the quarterbacks who had played in those games were of the highest order: Bob Griese, Fran Tarkenton, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Ken Stabler.
• In the four years following the '78 rules changes, a quarterback was named MVP in each Super Bowl game, and quarterbacks have dominated the MVP ranks ever since.
It is the modern game as we know it, with the scales tipped decidedly toward offense and the passing game. At least, it was that way until last year, when net yards and points declined rather decidedly.
When the New England Patriots used a rough-house pass-defense tactic to intercept Peyton Manning four times and leave the Colts crying foul, reaction by the league was as expected. Defense is never permitted to win.
Well, say hello to what the NFL is describing as a "major point of emphasis" by game officials this season. Offensive linemen will still be permitted to use their hands, and cornerbacks still can't make contact with receivers beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage, but this season it'll really be five yards.
In other words, officials have been directed to call a lot more illegal-contact penalties against cornerbacks because the league wants more offense.
"Offense brings spectators," umpire Scott Dawson said.
Dawson and three other members – head linesman Tom Stabile, back judge Richard Reels and side judge Greg Meyer – of referee Jeff Triplette's crew met with Jacksonville media today to explain rules changes and points of emphasis for the 2004 season. The five-yard rule is the headliner among those changes and points of emphasis.
What impact will the league's crackdown on "chuck rule" infractions have on the overall game? Might this turn out to be 1978 all over again? Will we see an explosion of points, pass attempts and passing yards?
That's the plan, isn't it?
"In previous years the league office told us to make it a good five yards, which meant 5-6 yards. Now it's just five yards," Reels said of his interpretation of the league's emphasis on enforcing no contact beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage.
In other words, beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage, football is likely to resemble basketball. No blows to the head! Now, don't even touch.
"If you look at the rules changes in recent years, they have been geared for offense," Reels added.
Dawson, however, doesn't expect tighter enforcement of the "chuck rule" to make a major difference. "These guys are so talented that they'll adjust to the way the league wants the game called," he said.
"It's going to make it a lot easier for us," Reels said, referring to the fact that strict interpretation of the five-yard rule will eliminate indecision by the official as to whether he should make the call.
The league would also seem to have made its officials' jobs easier in making "block in the back" calls. Previously, a blocking player in a chase mode had to literally put both hands on the number on the back of the defender's jersey before he was flagged, though block-in-the-back calls continued to occur at an annoying rate. This year, one hand on a defender's back will get a flag.
Are you ready for some block in the back? You better be.
And there are other rules changes and interpretation changes for this season, but they are minor compared to the emphasis the league is placing on enforcement of the five-yard no-chuck rule. What the league is referring to as a "major point of emphasis" could have a major impact on the game.
This should be a great year to be a quarterback or wide receiver.