For the third time in three games, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was penalized for roughing the passer. For the second week in a row, the play drawing the flag has become a flashpoint for NFL players, coaches, fans, and referees regarding the league’s rules around protecting quarterbacks.
In week two’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, Matthews was called for roughing the passer when he hit quarterback Kirk Cousins. Referee Tony Corrente said that he threw a flag for an illegal “scoop-and-pull” technique, for which he also penalized Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks earlier in that game. This week, Matthews sacked Alex Smith, bursting off a block and hitting Smith in the shoulder. Matthews’ momentum carried his body weight onto Smith, which was apparently the action worthy of penalty.
This is a new rule in the NFL, despite referee Craig Wrolstad’s comments to the contrary to media after the game. Complicating matters, Wrolstad did not flag a far more egregious hit on the previous series, when Da’Ron Payne picked up Aaron Rodgers and body-slammed him to the turf. Wrolstad apparently was picked up on his microphone saying that he “couldn’t see through 14 guys.”
Regardless of the inconsistent application of roughing the passer rules, players and coaches are upset about what is being considered a penalty in the first place. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was livid on the sideline after the flag was thrown, and was spotted screaming at the official nearest him. After the game, McCarthy stood by his initial feelings, saying “I thought Clay did exactly what he’s supposed to do there.”
McCarthy continued on to elaborate why he felt that Matthews’ hit was within the rules: “He hit him with his shoulder, he’s coming full speed off of a block, he braced himself. I was fine with what Clay did there.” However, that was the extent of McCarthy’s comments on the matter, saying that questions about the intent of the rule should be asked of “other people,” presumably in the NFL officiating department.
Matthews himself, however, was much more willing to address the rule itself after the game. He spoke at length with reporters, clearly upset about yet another flag that he seemed entirely incapable of avoiding. “Obviously I don’t agree with it again,” Matthews said. “(Like) last week, I thought I hit the quarterback correctly. (My) head was to the side again, (I) wrapped him up. You see as soon as I hit the ground I try to put my hands up. Obviously when you’re tackling a guy from the front, you’re gonna land on him.
“I understand the spirit of the rule, I said that weeks prior. But when you have a hit like that, that’s a football play.”
Matthews even went on to say that he talked to Alex Smith after the game, asking him what he could have done differently on that hit. Predictably, Matthews said that Smith told him there was nothing he could have done, and simply “That’s a football play.” That response echoes Aaron Rodgers’ comments from after the Vikings game, when the Packers quarterback said that he “couldn’t believe there was a penalty” on the Kendricks or Matthews hits.
Ultimately, Matthews went a step farther on Sunday, however, calling out the NFL entirely. “Unfortunately this league’s going in a direction I think a lot of people don’t like,” he said. “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.” He added that as a pass-rusher, he feels that the only option now is to not bother hitting the quarterback at all, saying “you just have to attack the ball.”
Ultimately, the officials aren’t giving Matthews, or other pass-rushers, much leeway here to make those “football plays” that players — including quarterbacks — feel are a normal part of the game. It’s lessening the enjoyment of the game for those playing it, as well as for those watching it when plays that do not appear to be unnecessary injury risks are being legislated out of the sport.