Remember last season, when no one could decide what constituted a catch in the NFL and we debated it over and over, endlessly breaking down video of plays as if they were the Zapruder film?
Those seem like such happy, golden days now, because the first two weeks of this season have been marked by utter bafflement about just what constitutes roughing the passer. No one, but no one, likes how the rule is being called, and two of the more vocal critics happen to be men who formerly headed up the NFL’s officiating department.
Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino, now Fox Sports analysts, wasted no time weighing in after two plays in the Green Bay-Minnesota game jumped out at everyone, with one helping change the course of the game. Eric Kendricks was whistled for bringing down Aaron Rodgers in the second quarter, and Clay Matthews was flagged for roughing Kirk Cousins late in the fourth. The Kendricks penalty helped the Packers to a field goal, while the Matthews penalty was far more important. His seemingly textbook tackle led to an interception by Jaire Alexander that would have essentially ended the game with the Packers leading. But the penalty extended the game, which ended in a tie.
Matthews was flabbergasted, and he wasn’t the only one.
“Those are not fouls,” Blandino said on the weekly “Last Call” show with Pereira.
“What I’m having a problem with now, even though it’s a point of emphasis, is they’re creating penalties for contact and tackles to me that don’t put the quarterback at risk of injury,” Pereira replied.
Keeping the quarterbacks, the league’s moneymakers, healthy and upright is, of course, the goal. It does no good when, say, Rodgers suffers a broken collarbone in mid-October that limits him to one late-December appearance the rest of the way. The league sought to fix that in the offseason, instituting an “Aaron Rodgers rule” after the Bears' Anthony Barr caused that injury by landing on him. The penalties on Matthews and Kendricks weren’t enforcement of that rule, but officials seem to be overly cautious, overcorrecting as they seek to protect the quarterback.
“[The rule] says you can’t commit intimidating or punishing acts; you can’t violently or unnecessarily drive him to the ground or land on him with all or most of your body weight. That’s not what you’re seeing in at least those two calls in that game,” Blandino said.
“What do you want the defender to do? To me, it looks like he’s wrapping and he’s trying to bring the quarterback to the ground. There is going to be some force. There is going to be some impetus that takes both players to the ground. Again, what do you want the defender to do in that situation?”
Pereira worried that “we’re setting a dangerous precedent. ... You can’t have that as a foul. There’s got to be a line drawn closer to a more violent hit.”
The NFL believed Matthews was grabbing the passer from behind the leg or legs, scooping and pulling in an upward motion, which is a foul. Tony Corrente, the referee in Sunday’s game, told a pool reporter that the penalty called on Matthews had nothing to do with the Rodgers rule. “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.” That left Matthews at a loss for how to tackle.
"Last week, okay, shame on me,” Matthews said of being called for roughing the passer in Week 1. “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 going to say? They’re going to say — they’ll find fault on me because they’re going to 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.”
It isn’t likely to become clearer anytime soon. Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, said Monday that the two plays would be used as teaching tools for players this week, and he defended the calls as correct.
So instead of fretting over new guidelines about helmet hits, “roughing the passer by landing on top of him with most or all of your body weight has stolen the show,” Pereira tweeted Sunday.
Through two weeks, roughing the passer has been called 21 times. Through two weeks last year, it was flagged nine times. Maybe James Harrison, the oft-fined former linebacker, had the right idea in 2011 when, during Super Bowl media day, he was asked how to make the game safer. “Lay pillows down where I tackle them,” he said, “so they don’t get hurt when they hit the ground ... Mr. Goodell.”
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