After he took a hit to his knee that wasn’t flagged on Sunday, Cam Newton went off on the NFL. “At times I don’t even feel safe,” Newton, the reigning league MVP, said at the start of an extended rant about calls he frequently doesn’t get. “And enough is enough.”
Steelers OT Marcus Gilbert said Newton should stop complaining—“This is the game of football, if you’re out there and you’re scared to take a shot, then don’t be out there”—but Newton is right: He does not get the same degree of protection from the officials as some other quarterbacks. And beyond even that, the league may have created more confusion this season by tweaking a rule specifically designed to guard against low hits against quarterbacks.
First, let’s take a look at Calais Campbell’s hit on Newton, after which the Cardinals DE did appear to apologize:
The league has since acknowledged that Campbell should have been penalized for diving at Newton’s knee.
Flagging hits on quarterbacks at or below the knees is a point of emphasis this season for league officials, as a matter of safety. Campbell’s shot at Newton—even if it did not appear to be an intentional attempt to cause injury—looked like a textbook case of the sort of play the NFL seeks to punish. Which is why Newton was so steamed when no penalty was called.
Per the Charlotte Observer, this is more of what Newton had to say after the game:
“It’s really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe. And enough is enough. I plan on talking to Commissioner Goodell about this. And I don’t know what I have to do.
“I don’t think there’s a person that can go through what I go through and still keep their heads. Hits to the head, that’s one thing. But when you’re not protected in the pocket, that’s another thing.
“The story of my life ever since I came in is, ‘Oh, oh, well, we missed that one. I’m sorry. I’ll try to get it.’ That’s bullcrap. As a player in this league, if we do something stupid we get fined. If you do something derogatory to somebody else, we get fined. I just can’t keep accepting, ‘Oh, we missed that one.’ Or ‘I apologize for doing that.’ Or ‘I didn’t see it.’ That’s horsecrap.”
(Newton did, apparently, have that chat with Roger Goodell on Tuesday.)
Newton clearly wants the same degree of consideration from the officials other top NFL QBs get. The NFL has done much to try to protect quarterbacks, who are frequently defenseless, and who often happen to be the faces of the league. Which is why it was weird to see the league float some internal intel about Newton and roughing the passer penalties through Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. After Newton aired his grievances on Sunday, Florio cited “a source with knowledge of the league’s position on the matter” who told him the NFL has missed just three roughing calls against Newton since the start of the ’13 season, and that 11 other QBs have had more roughing calls missed in that time.
But Matt Bowen of ESPN called bullshit on that: In a piece published this morning, Bowen compared hits on Newton the last two years that weren’t flagged to similar hits on other QBs that did draw a penalty, including some from the beating Newton’s brain took back in this year’s opener.
As Bowen noted, Newton does leave the pocket frequently, both by design and on scrambles. As a result, Newton has been hit more than any other quarterback since 2014. But what about when Newton remains in the pocket? Here’s Bowen:
Newton has endured 59 hits inside the pocket over the past 1½ seasons, the ninth-highest number in the league. And yet, notable quarterbacks who have been hit a similar number of times have gotten far more calls over that span — Drew Brees (10 roughing the passer calls), Tom Brady (five), Jameis Winston (five), Aaron Rodgers (four), Russell Wilson (three) and Matt Ryan (two).
Newton, meanwhile, has drawn zero accepted roughing penalties during the same span.*
This is where the confusion comes in. The rules have long stated that “a player in the act of or just after throwing a pass” is considered defenseless. Here’s the rulebook on the sort of contact that’s prohibited against a defenseless player:
And here is the rule on low hits on passers, with this year’s new emphasis highlighted in red:
So: A defender A) can’t hit a passer high, but he also B) can’t hit him low depending on what body part the defender uses, though C) the defender would be OK if he had been pushed, as long as he D) doesn’t roll or lunge or “make forcible contact,” though he’d still be fine if E) he “swipes, wraps, or grabs a passer in the knee area or below in an attempt to tackle.” Got all that? It becomes harder to blame specific officials for missing these hits, and easier to cite the convoluted and inconsistently emphasized rules governing the already-thin line between accident and intent, clean and dirty.
The NFL can’t define a catch, has no idea what constitutes taunting, and now can’t make up its mind on when it’s OK to hit a quarterback. Because of Newton’s size and his scrambling and the fact that he isn’t getting any flags, defenders are going to keep hitting him until he’s injured or he starts getting calls. Newton’s anger may serve the purpose of calling more attention to his own safety, but that won’t change how much the league’s part-time officials have to sort out in real time.