Remember when the NFL’s new helmet rule was going to ruin the game?
That’s so last month, all the way back in the preseason.
Two weeks into the regular season, it’s the emphasis on protecting quarterbacks by the officials that is drawing the ire of defensive players and fans.
The flash point Sunday was a seemingly routine, mostly harmless hit by Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as Cousins delivered a pass that was intercepted by Green Bay cornerback Jaire Alexander in the final two minutes of regulation at Lambeau Field. The Packers led, 29-21. Game over, right?
Not so fast. Matthews was called for roughing the passer. The Vikings retained possession, picked up 15 yards on the penalty and tied the score in the final minute with a touchdown and a two-point conversion. The game ended tied at 29 after the 10-minute overtime, already the second tie this season.
Matthews clearly was not pleased.
“I don’t even know where to start, to be completely honest with you,” he told reporters after the game. “I have so many emotions kind of running through as far as just what a terrible call it was. But at the same time, I don’t know what else to do. I mean, I don’t know. You let me know. I put pressure on him. I thought I hit him within his waist to chest, got my head across, put my hands down. And to call it at that point in the game was just — it’s unbelievable.”
Others have taken notice as well.
“Many thought the new helmet rule was going to be the controversial topic of the season,” Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating who now serves as a rules analyst for Fox, wrote Sunday on Twitter. “Forget it. Roughing the passer by landing on top of him with most or all your body weight has stolen the show.”
The NFL believes the call against Matthews was correct, according to a person familiar with the situation, and the play will be included in the weekly video sent by the league to coaches, in this case reiterating that the technique used by Matthews — grabbing the passer from behind the legs, scooping him upward and then sending him to the ground — is considered illegal. Entering the Monday night game, there have been 21 roughing-the-passer penalties called this season, compared to nine in the first two weeks of last season. Defensive players around the league have taken notice. You don’t have to be particularly rough, defenders say, to rough the quarterback in today’s NFL.
“You have to be extremely, extremely careful,” Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Al Woods said Sunday in the visitor’s locker room at FedEx Field after his team’s 21-9 triumph over the Redskins. “You land on him wrong, they call it. You hit him too hard, they’re calling it. So you have to be really careful. You have to do drills and pretty much learn how to re-tackle when you hit guys like that because the way they’re calling it nowadays, you can’t do anything but be careful.”
Much was made during the preseason of the NFL’s new rule that makes it a penalty for a player to lower his head and use his helmet to deliver a hit on an opponent. But after a flag-fest during the first two weeks of the preseason, the competition committee clarified that incidental or inadvertent contact was not to result in a penalty. Everything has calmed down considerably since then.
Now it’s all about the hits on quarterbacks. Two defensive players have been ejected in the season’s first two weeks for such plays at the end of a run. In Week 1, it was Cincinnati Bengals safety Shawn Williams being ejected for a hit on the Colts’ Andrew Luck. On Sunday, it was Atlanta Falcons safety Damontae Kazee being ejected for a hit on the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton.
In each case, the ejection appeared fully justified and relatively obvious. And in each case, the ejection was made for unnecessary roughness, not for a violation of the helmet rule.
The league also told officials this season to penalize a defender for landing on a quarterback with most or all his body weight on a hit, which is being called either the Anthony Barr rule or the Aaron Rodgers rule. Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone last season on such a hit by Barr, a linebacker for the Vikings.
But Tony Corrente, the referee in Sunday’s Packers-Vikings game, told a pool reporter that the penalty called on Matthews for the hit on Cousins did not come as a result of that directive.
“It has nothing to do with the rule of full body weight,” Corrente said. “It has nothing to do with helmet to helmet. He picked the quarterback up and drove him into the ground.”
Corrente was asked what Matthews could have done differently and said: “Not picked him up and drove him into the ground.”
This is simply how it is today. It is not the NFL of 20 years ago, or even of five years ago. All player safety rules are of the highest priority by the league at a time when it is dealing with the growing body of research into the long-term health consequences of concussions. The helmet rule was implemented following a 2017 season in which concussions were up and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal cord injury in a December game.
Last season also featured high-profile injuries to Rodgers and other marquee quarterbacks. Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz looked on his way to an MVP season that was cut short by a December knee injury, keeping him out of the playoffs and Super Bowl. Houston’s Deshaun Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury that probably kept him from being the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. Luck didn’t play all season following shoulder surgery.
So the league is doing what it can to protect its biggest stars. And defensive players had better learn to live with it.
Almost all new safety rules are met by an outcry by players and fans. Defensive players have been complaining for years about preferential treatment given to quarterbacks. The refrain is not exactly new here.
Matthews also was called for roughing the passer at a key moment in Week 1 for a hit on the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky, although that didn’t end up costing the Packers a victory.
“Last week, okay, shame on me,” Matthews said. “But this week, that’s unbelievable. The worst part is, we’ll probably send it in [to the league]. And you know what they’re gonna say? They’re gonna say — they’ll find fault on me because they’re gonna agree with the ref. So I don’t know. It’s a difficult call to call. And you see how it changed the game. I know there’s an emphasis on protecting quarterbacks. But it’s gotten out of control here.
“I don’t know what else to do.”
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