A penalty that results from a defensive player interfering with
an offensive receiving player more than 5 yards from the line of
scrimmage. The result of the penalty is 5 yards and an
automatic first down in favor the offense.
Also referred to as "Illegal Touching".
Illegal contact beyond the 5-yard zone was first put into place
in 1978 to limit a cornerback's ability to wrap up or sometimes
maul wide receivers on their route. Although it was written in
the 1970s, this rule wasn't really enforced until the 1990s.
The idea was to allow contact 'at' or 'close' to the line of
scrimmage, but also allow receivers to run unimpeded after 5
In 2004 and more recently the NFL and its Competition Committee made it a priority for illegal contact to receive extra scrutiny from NFL referees and be enforced to the letter of the law. Many believe that this crackdown has helped the NFL evolve more into a 'passing league'.
Illegal contact in college and junior ranks is often enforced differently, where some pushing and grabbing down field is acceptable until the quarterback releases the throw.