Opinion: More Roughing the Passer Flags to Come

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We all knew what our eyes were telling us.

Clay Matthews did not rough the passer. He simply wrapped up Alex Smith as the quarterback clutched the ball and took him to the ground. Sack.

The Packers linebacker didn't hit the Redskins quarterback high nor low. He didn't hoist Smith into air, upend him and violently plant him into the turf. He drove right through him. Perfect form.

Yet the yellow flag came out, and Matthews found himself the recipient of yet another controversial call as, for the second time in two weeks, he landed on the quarterback with all or most of his body weight.

Unlike in Week 2, when Matthews' illegal hit on Kirk Cousins cost the Packers the win as they settled for a tie with the Vikings, the Smith sack had no impact on the outcome of Green Bay's 31-17 loss.

But the penalty, the byproduct of the NFL's new emphasis on protecting the quarterback, represented yet another frustrating episode and apparent threat to both the purity of the game and credibility of the NFL.

Matthews fumed. Packers coach Mike McCarthy was irate. And everyone from Packers players to opposing players and analysts sympathized.

"I understand the spirit of the rule," Matthews told reporters after the game. "I said that in weeks prior. But when you have a hit like that, that's a football play. I even went up to Alex Smith after the game and asked him, 'What do you think? What can I do differently?' Because that's a football play. Like I said last week, the NFL is going to come back and say I put my body on him. But that's a football play."

His frustrations mounting, Matthews said what many of us have thought, "Unfortunately, this league is going in a direction I think a lot of people don't like. I think they're getting soft. The only thing hard about this league is the fines that they levy down on guys like me that play the game hard."

Where's the lie? Where's the misinterpretation?

According to the NFL, right in front of us. Textbook foul, the NFL says.

"If you were to ask me to show you a video of what the rule prohibits, I would show you that play," retired NFL official Ed Hochuli, who now works as a consultant for the league, told USA TODAY on Monday. "That is the most classic, textbook, exactly, example of the foul of landing on a quarterback with all or most of your body weight."

The backlash from players, coaches and fans will not sway the league. This isn't the murky catch rule, which the NFL agreed needed to be corrected this past offseason. The roughing the passer standards are clear.

According to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9, "A rushing defender may make direct contact with the passer only up through the rusher's first step after such release (prior to second step hitting the ground); thereafter the rusher must be making an attempt to avoid contact and must not continue to 'drive through' or otherwise forcibly contact the passer; incidental or inadvertent contact by a player who is easing up or being blocked into the passer will not be considered significant."

This language was put into place in 1995.

It's only now that the competition committee has stressed the need to actually enforce this rule.

Why now?

Some single out Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, who broke Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' collarbone last year on the kind of hit that's now a point of emphasis and wrecked the Packers' season.

Others point to the league's ongoing mission to make the game safer as officials strive to avoid risk of further legal action from players regarding concussions.

Regardless, this point of emphasis is here to stay. Players must adjust their techniques, league officials insist, and all of us must adjust our thinking.

Easier said than done, right?

"It's very hard," Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan told USA TODAY on Monday. "If you slow down to ease up, then you could miss the sack (or give the quarterback) more time to make the pass. It's hard."

But Hochuli disagrees. After he took me through Matthews' play, I'm starting to understand.

"If you watch that play, you will see that the defender is still two steps away from the quarterback when he knows he's got a sack," Hochuli said. "He knows because the ball is still tucked down, and it's not even up in a passing posture. At a step away, there's absolutely no doubt about it and all he's got to do is go to the side. Instead of continuing on straight into the quarterback, he's just got to roll to the side and make it more of an arm tackle instead of a body tackle.

"After he's made contact with the quarterback, he still takes two more steps. After he's made contact before he goes to the ground. Roll off to the side. There were actually many opportunities for Clay to roll to the side. And he is an amazing athlete. These guys are all amazing athletes and the things they're able to do, I may not be able to do, but that's all he's got to do — make that mental adjustment that as he approaches the quarterback."

Slowed down in that fashion, it all makes more sense. But the perception problem remains.

Quarterbacks such as Rodgers and Smith even believe some gray area remains and that the league should clear things up. Other players are under the impression that NFL brass cares only about protecting quarterbacks.

Dolphins coach Adam Gase made a concerning revelation when he suggested that William Hayes suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament Sunday after the pass rusher tried to avoid landing with his body weight on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

Responding to that news, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted, "(The NFL) don't care about the rest of us getting hurt. Long as the QB is safe."

Others have suggested that these controversial calls — along with Matthews' suggestion that the league is "getting soft" — have threatened the credibility of the game.

But the NFL again disagrees.

"I don't think it's a big problem at all," Hochuli said.

He pointed out that Matthews drawing two such penalties brings greater visibility to the issue because he's a high-profile player. But in 3,342 pass attempts across the league through Sunday's, only 30 such plays have drawn roughing the passer penalties. That number is up, however, from 16 through the first three weeks of the 2017 season and 20 in 2016.

The NFL believes that the outcry over this rule eventually will subside. Hochuli pointed to the strong reaction that the rule changes regarding hits to a defenseless receiver initially drew several years ago. Defensive players wondered how they would operate given the new constraints, but they have adapted. This could indeed happen eventually as players and the public come around on the roughing the passer point of emphasis.

But for now, skepticism and concern remain.

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September 25, 2018


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