According to Wikipedia, illegal contact occurs when "a player makes significant contact with a receiver after the receiver has advanced five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This rule was adopted in 1978, and its enactment is regarded as contributing to the dramatic increase in both passing yardage and scoring that the NFL has witnessed since that time."
In 2004, the competition committee made the rule a point of emphasis, essentially penalizing defensive backs for being too aggressive.
If you watched Sunday night's Packers-Bears game, you witnessed another example of this incessantly terrible penalty called at the worst possible time.
Al Harris was flagged in the fourth quarter after a 3rd-and-6 pass fell incomplete and almost stalled Chicago's chances to take the lead.
However, the result of the penalty was five yards and an automatic first down. Chicago's drive got new life.
Instead of being forced to punt, Chicago continued to drive into field goal range and take the lead.
I get it; penalties exist to make the game fair to all and to ensure the players are disciplined for playing outside of the rules.
But why does this penalty carry with it an automatic first down? Theoretically, it could have been 4th-and-75 with an incomplete pass, but that penalty would still give the offense an automatic first down without earning it.
The result of the play was not a first down. The ball was not placed past the first down marker after the penalty was enforced.
So why do the chains move?
In a game where linemen and ball carriers fight for every inch by churning their legs, pushing and diving, this penalty allows a team to get a first down if a defensive back taps a receiver on the shoulder once they are five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
No other penalty seems this absurd or carries such an unfair advantage.
Take defensive offsides, for example. A defensive lineman could line up directly behind the quarterback and sack him as soon as the ball is snapped. This results in a five-yard penalty and a replay of the down.
Let's get this straight: the defense can prevent the offense from legitimately running its play and the offense gets five yards and replays the down—depending upon the placement of the ball.
However, when the offense has a chance to complete the play but a defender places a hand on the receiver before the pass is thrown, the offense is given at least three more chances to get a first down (or score), regardless of the down and distance after the penalty is enforced.
A penalty for such a trivial action should not have that great of an effect on the game's result. Had Green Bay's offense not subsequently scored, that would have been the reason they lost.
The automatic first down should be taken away from this rule, as it usually is not deserved. There is a similar rule that typically results in a first down: pass interference.
Interference occurs when a defender impedes the receiver when he is an actual target. It is more severe than illegal contact, and carries a harsher penalty (the ball is placed at the spot of the foul).
The two penalties are very different and should not have such an overlap in result.
Illegal contact is a judgement call by the referee and therefore gives him the ability to affect the entire game with one call.
When one referee has that much power, something has to change. Since the game can't, the rule must.
Take the power to give these arbitrary first downs away from the ref. Make the offenses continue to work, like other penalties.