There was ample furor earlier this season when penalty flags were flying during NFL games for roughing-the-passer penalties that weren’t, in many cases, all that rough. The consternation was particularly intense over two calls made against Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews for what some described as textbook tackles. Many players and fans expressed their dismay that hits on quarterbacks had been all but banned, in their view, by the league.
The NFL’s competition committee intervened, issuing a clarification intended by committee members to change the way in which the roughing-the-passer rule was being officiated and put that enforcement more in line with the committee’s expectations. The flag-fest of the season’s first three weeks was curtailed in Week 4, and everything calmed down.
Some NFL defensive players still are not satisfied.
The number of roughing-the-passer penalties crept back up during the Week 5 games this past weekend, and members of the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense were particularly miffed about a call against defensive end Michael Bennett for a low hit on quarterback Kirk Cousins that played a part in their loss Sunday at home to the Minnesota Vikings.
“I think they just sometimes lack common sense,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, speaking of the rules safeguarding quarterbacks, said after Sunday’s game. “I get it. We want to protect quarterbacks, and I completely understand that. They’re the lifeblood to our game. But it’s really hard to do your job, and it’s having an effect on some games. But we had plenty of other opportunities to win the game. That was just one play that was a little frustrating.”
There were 11 roughing-the-passer penalties assessed in Week 5. That was back near the levels seen in the season’s first three weeks, in which roughing the passer was called 34 times. There were only five roughing-the-passer calls in the Week 4 games, immediately after the competition committee met by conference call a week sooner than scheduled at the behest of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The big issue in the season’s first three weeks was related to the competition committee’s directive to game officials, via a point of emphasis, to enforce an existing rule prohibiting a defender from landing on a quarterback with most or all of his body weight. The second of Matthews’ controversial early-season penalties, for a hit on the Washington Redskins’ Alex Smith, stemmed from that. The first of the uproar-inducing penalties called on Matthews was for lifting Cousins off the ground in a game against the Vikings before taking him to the turf.
There was strong sentiment on the competition committee that neither of the penalties on Matthews should have been called despite the league office’s backing of both calls, people close to the situation said. The committee wanted officials to change their enforcement of the rule, and the clarification was issued. All was well, it seemed, in Week 4.
The complaints were back in Week 5, although not at the same fever pitch as earlier in the season. The objections to Bennett’s penalty, which aided a Vikings’ touchdown drive during their 23-21 triumph over the Eagles, were not an extension of the earlier body-weight debate.
In this case, Bennett was tumbling to the ground near Cousins, perhaps aided by a shove by Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. Bennett appeared to hit Cousins in the upper leg on his way to the turf. While on the ground, Bennett pulled down Cousins by the lower leg. Forcible low hits on quarterbacks have been banned by the NFL since Carson Palmer and Tom Brady were injured on such plays. But some analysts said this penalty shouldn’t have been called because Bennett’s low hit on Cousins did not qualify as forcible.
“Even if you hit him at the waist, if you slide down, they’re going to call it,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “But that doesn’t mean that’s a good rule or should have been called. … That’s tough.”
Said Jenkins: “I don’t know what he’s supposed to do. The quarterback has the ball. I know they don’t want low hits on the quarterback. But if you’re falling down, I guess you’re supposed to let the quarterback go. The explanation from the official was, ‘He has to avoid that hit,’ which means that he can’t do his job. He can’t tackle the quarterback while the quarterback has the ball. So obviously that was a big play and that was frustrating. I don’t know what to tell Mike to do on that play.”
Long said that the rules regarding hits on quarterbacks “probably” need further adjustment.
“A lot of guys are coming in … to try to hit the quarterback, and we’re second-guessing ourselves,” Long said. “We don’t know where to hit him or if we should hit him in certain situations. So it’s going to be tough. I guess we’ve got to adapt.”
Not everyone seems to be sympathizing with exasperated defensive players. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday that there’s nothing new about the roughing-the-passer rules so he doesn’t see what the big deal is.
“You’re not allowed to lead with your head,” Belichick said. “You’re not allowed to body-slam the quarterback. You’re not allowed to hit him below the knees. You’re not allowed to hit him above the shoulders. … I mean, the rules are the rules. … I’m not really sure what new rule it is you’re talking about here. We’ve coached the rules as they’ve been written and as we’ve received them. … I’ve never taught anybody to hit a quarterback above the shoulders or hit him below the knees or body-slam him or lead with our helmet and spear him.”
Defensive players, in the final analysis, probably will simply have to learn to live with the rules as they are and as they’re being called, without much further tweaking. The NFL certainly doesn’t want to see marquee quarterbacks hurt and, mostly, things are going well for the league this season with the rule as it is. Scoring is up. TV ratings are encouraging. If a couple officiating controversies are the biggest current problems for the league, the NFL’s leaders can live with that.
Even Eagles coach Doug Pederson did not object too strenuously Sunday. Pederson called it “tough, unfortunate” but quickly added: “The rule is the rule. And we’ve got to abide by it.”