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NFL finds itself needing to fix another rule after roughing the passer debacles

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Roughing the passer calls are out of control.

NFL: Pro Bowl Experience Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Another week led to another roughing the passer penalty on the Green Bay Packers — and Clay Matthews, specifically. The Packers lead the league in roughing the passer penalties with five and Matthews has as many (3) as any other team.

As of Sunday night, the NFL is on pace to shatter last year’s record of 107 roughing the passer penalties for an entire season. Excluding the Monday night game, there have already been 29 roughing the passer penalties and that puts the league on pace for 164 for the entire year. I’m all for player safety and any quarterback injury will be a massive loss, as we saw last year, but this is getting ridiculous.

The outcome of all these penalties is making a major shift in the way the game is being played. Matthews came out after the game and said the league was getting “soft.” To make matters worse, there is zero consistency from the different referee crews on what is or is not roughing the passer. On top of that, the refs don’t even seem to be consistent throughout each game that they are calling. That is doing something that no one in the NFL front offices should want. It is making the referees a focal point in the game where the focus should be on the players and it is asking the defensive players to do the impossible.

Let’s look to the writing of the new roughing rules that deal with the issue more than anything. NFL rule 12-2-9(b) has an excerpt which states:

“When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.”

Now, let’s look at two plays within the game on Sunday. First off is the obvious play in question, the Clay Matthews roughing call on Alex Smith.

Clay makes a nice move on Washington tackle Ty Nsekhe and has a dead to rights shot on Alex Smith. Matthews gets his head to the side, hits Smith in his upper torso and wraps him up for the presumptive sack. To get very detailed and take a closer look...yes, all or most his weight lands on Smith. So, technically, is this a roughing the passer call? Yes, by how the rule is written.

However, what is Matthews supposed to do in this situation? Smith is a standing target and Matthews is running full speed at him. How is he supposed to hit him, tackle him and not put his body weight on him? He can’t possibly put a shoulder into him, roll off and just expect Smith to just go to the ground. The NFL is asking Matthews to do the physically impossible. This, in particular, is where the unnecessarily word in the rule comes into play. Nothing Matthews did should be judged to be unnecessary.

Now onto another play that show the lack on consistency from the same game. It’s Washington’s Da’ron Payne getting the first sack of his career.

As Mark Bullock points out, Payne puts a nice move when Justin McCray uses poor technique and gets to Rodgers for the sack. However, look at how Payne gets Rodgers to the ground. He throws Rodgers to the ground as he lands on top of him. To get to the little details of the rule, like the Matthews hit, can someone can say that Payne violently threw Rodgers to the ground? Maybe yes, maybe no. That’s up for interpretation by these new rules and you’ll get a differing opinion from one person to another. I say no. However, one thing that can’t be ignored is that Payne lands completely on top of Rodgers with all his weight, similar to what Matthews did. So, by the technicality of the written rule above, this should have been roughing the passer.

As for why Matthews was flagged and Payne wasn’t? Referee Craig Wrolstad said he couldn’t see the play:

Personally, I don’t think either of these plays should have been even close to roughing the passer and the refs got it right in the Da’ron Payne situation. Both players were working hard and completing the play. The differing outcomes need to be blamed on how the rule is written and how it is interpreted by each referee. So, what should the NFL do about this ridiculously written rule?

The NFL doesn’t need to look far for the answer. They need to have a similar meeting about the rule as they did with the ridiculous helmet rule that everyone was griping about in the preseason. They need to sit down with officials and emphasize two words from the rule above: “unnecessarily” and “violently.”

After emphasizing those words then it just comes down to common sense by officials. Anything that seems to be overly excessive or violent needs to be flagged but you can’t take away the essence of the game. Yes, this is a violent game but there is a huge difference from a violent hit and a hard hit. Both the plays above were hard hits. Clay’s roughing call on Kirk Cousins last week was a hard hit. Eric Kendricks’ roughing on Rodgers last week was a hard hit.

The Matthews hit on Mitchell Trubisky in week one was a violent and late hit to the head. That one was a correct call. To make an unpopular opinion, I’ll even go back and say Anthony Barr’s hit that caused the Aaron Rodgers injury last year was a hard hit. That was just a bad luck play where Rodgers got hurt. I don’t think Barr was trying to injure Rodgers. He was doing what he was trained to do: chase down a quarterback and make a play.

I can’t say whether the NFL will even have a meeting on this but when should it happen? The obviously answer is as soon as possible but I doubt highly that will happen. I feel this way just because of the black eye that the league will feel it created for itself by defending the calls throughout the past two weeks, especially on Matthews. Before Sunday’s game was even over, the league was defending the call on the field:

To save face, they will probably wait until the end of the year and have us endure a full season of this mess rather than step up and admit the mistake after the season has already started.

It wouldn’t be hard to fix and most fans would at least give them credit for getting the issue fixed before it gets any farther out of control. Just look at the helmet rule from the preseason. Few even remember the issue now, and it was a quick fix. The smartest PR move would be to admit the mistake and fix it before it becomes a season long story that bleeds over into the playoffs. How insane would any owner, coach, player or fan base get if one of these ridiculous roughing calls ends up happening in the Super Bowl and costing a team a championship? Or will they just do nothing and let the NFL just keep getting soft?