The NFL Re-Emphasizes Its Emphasis On A Rule No One Understands

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During Sunday’s Raiders-Dolphins game, as a replay sequence that included the above clip was shown to viewers, the CBS broadcast crew had the following conversation:

BRUCE ARIANS: “Yeah, this is interesting, because he takes Derek Carr to the ground, and it appears that he puts his full body weight on purpose on top of Derek Carr—which has been a penalty the first two weeks. It’s amazing to me that, you know, when we have new rules, they get tweaked a little bit each week. To me, that was an obvious full body weight on top of a quarterback.”

GREG GUMBEL: “Well, it doesn’t tell you, when his arms are spread, coach—that doesn’t tell you that he’s trying to avoid it?”

ARIANS: “No, he’s a Superman landing right on top of him.”

GUMBEL: [laughs] “Okay.”

TRENT GREEN: “That’s a technique—you put your arms out so your full body weight does land on top of the quarterback.”


The defender, Dolphins defensive end William Hayes, wound up tearing the ACL in his right knee on the play. As we would later learn, Hayes injured his knee specifically because he was trying to avoid landing on top of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Yet neither Arians, a former NFL head coach, nor Green, an ex-NFL quarterback, could properly assess Hayes’s intent, even with the benefit of replay. The fault for that is not theirs. As it had done in recent years with the catch rule, the league has tangled its roughing-the-passer rules into a knot.

Thirty-four roughing the passer penalties have been called in this season’s first 49 games. It’s not a lot (0.7 per game), but the nature of the calls—most notably the two against Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, which looked like routine football plays—whipped up enough outrage for the competition committee to hop onto a conference call Wednesday night. It was widely speculated that the committee would issue some sort of clarifying edict, just as it did before the start of the season with the helmet rule, which went from being a potential threat to the nature of the sport to a complete afterthought that’s only been flagged four times thus far. Instead, however, the committee chose to uphold the roughing the passer status quo:


That statement is misleading. While it’s true that the NFL has had “a body weight provision” in place since 1995, until this season that provision had stated that (emphasis mine) “a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw [the quarterback] down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.” This year, the word “and” in that sentence was replaced with “or,” which is a rather significant change.

The league says it made merely landing on the QB a point of emphasis, but by changing that one word, it has fundamentally altered the meaning of the rule. Now, by rule, it’s a flag-worthy offense if a defender simply lands on top of a quarterback, no matter his intent. The problem with this is obvious, as players like Matthews have discovered. But before Sunday’s game was even over, the league reiterated that the call against Matthews was correct. Which, according to the way the rule is now worded, is true:


As a companion to Troy Vincent’s statement from Thursday, the NFL distributed a video in which senior director of officiating Al Riveron stressed that it’s a foul whenever a defender lands on a quarterback with “all if not most of the body weight” while also making “no attempt to break the fall.” The hit by Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr that injured Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers last season—the impetus for this year’s rule change—is one of the video’s four examples of plays that are now considered illegal. All four of the legal hits that get shown (beginning at the 1:10 mark) involve defenders making arm tackles or players who get to the QB at angles that allowed them to fall to the QB’s side. Noticeably, Riveron didn’t mention either of the plays that resulted in flags for Matthews.


As the first three weeks of games has demonstrated, it can be physically impossible for defensive players—whose goal is to bring the player holding the ball to the ground—to avoid falling on that player as he’s bringing him to the ground, depending on the angle at which he gets to him. Matthews made this point after he was flagged again on Sunday. “Obviously when you’re tackling a guy from the front you’re gonna land on him,” Matthews said. “But when you have a hit like that, that’s a football play. I even went up to [Washington QB] Alex Smith after the game, asked him, ‘What do you think? What can I do differently?’ Because that’s a football play.”

During training camp, the league had an official go around to all 32 teams to show the media a video tutorial (embedded here) for this year’s rule changes and points of emphasis. I trekked to the presentation out at Jets camp, where longtime referee Tony Corrente was on hand to take questions. I asked Corrente how a player is expected to keep himself from landing on a QB once he’s launched himself into him. “These are unbelievable athletes, even the big men,” Corrente said. “Put it on the athletic ability of these players.” Even if, like William Hayes, they have to hurt themselves to do it. What happened to Hayes was an unintended consequence of the rule change, but it was a consequence nonetheless.


Back to that statement from Troy Vincent, which said the competition committee seeks to “ensure consistency in officiating the rule.” Based on comments made Wednesday by Saints head coach Sean Payton—a member of the competition committee—ESPN’s Kevin Seifert thinks the officials can be more consistent by judging whether a player intended to land on a QB as the standard for throwing a flag.


“Listen,” Payton said (emphasis mine), “I think the point of emphasis in the offseason was very simple and that was avoiding the player intentionally placing all the weight on the quarterback.” Payton also said there needs to be better consistency from crew to crew, and Seifert’s research showed that 18 of the 34 roughing the passer calls (53 percent) have been made by referees from just four of the league’s 17 crews.

But, as the above discussion between Arians, Gumbel, and Green indicated, judging intent on these types of hits isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, as some defenders are all too aware. “If they continue to call it like that,” Matthews said Thursday, “I think there’s going to be more penalties, players are obviously going to be upset, coaches are going to continue to not know how to coach it, and fans will continue to be upset by the fact that the NFL can’t seem to get out of its own way.” Then there’s Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who told he’d rather take a flag than risk hurting himself to avoid getting penalized. “I’m not willing to tear something to lay [the quarterback] on the ground like he’s a child,” Garrett said. And, again: Intent had been baked into the rule. Now it’s gone.


All of this is a natural consequence of reverse-engineering rules out of what are fundamentally PR concerns. The league has less interest in player safety than in protecting quarterbacks and encouraging scoring. But a show of concern for player safety remains paramount. “The league could be reluctant to pull back on a rule with its base in player safety,” NFL Media’s Judy Battista wrote. After all this, Matthews said Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy told him “not to change a thing” about how he plays. Per the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Matthews added, “I think it was more so just continue to play in the way in which I have.” Murphy, it should be noted, is also a member of the competition committee.