The NFL’s biggest officiating conundrum no longer is, “What’s a catch?” The controversy over the new helmet rule that was brewing during the preseason has fizzled during the regular season. But the new quandary over roughing-the-passer penalties lives on, at least for another week, and Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews again was involved Sunday.
Matthews was penalized for roughing the passer for a third-quarter hit on Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith during the Packers’ 31-17 loss at FedEx Field.
“I understand the spirit of the rule,” Matthews said afterward in the visitors’ locker room. “I said that in weeks prior. But when you have a hit like that, that’s a football play. I even went up to Alex Smith after the game and asked him, ‘What do you think? What can I do differently?’ Because that’s a football play. Like I said last week, the NFL is going to come back and say I put my body on him. But that’s a football play.”
Matthews ran directly at Smith and sacked him, without hitting the quarterback in the head or below the knee as prohibited by NFL rules. But Matthews, according to the NFL, violated the directive that a defender cannot land on a quarterback with most or all of his body weight.
“I had judged that the defender landed on the quarterback when he was tackling him with most or all of his body weight, and that’s not allowed,” referee Craig Wrolstad said. “If you do that, it’s roughing the passer. So that was basically my key, that he landed on him with most or all of his body weight and that was my ruling, roughing the passer.”
The NFL almost immediately backed the call made by Wrolstad. Soon after the penalty was assessed, with the game still in progress, the league wrote on its NFL Football Operations Twitter account: “This is a foul for roughing the passer — the defender lands ‘with all or most of the defender’s weight’ on the passer.”
A week earlier, Matthews was penalized for roughing the passer to negate a would-be game-sealing interception thrown by the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins. The league also supported that call, saying Matthews had improperly lifted Cousins off the ground before taking him down. The Vikings then tied the score with a touchdown and two-point conversion late in regulation. The game ended in a 29-all tie.
Matthews also was called for roughing the passer during a season-opening win over the Chicago Bears. According to ESPN, he had been called for roughing the passer only four times in his NFL career before this season.
The league told officials, through a point of officiating emphasis issued before this season, to strictly enforce the rule prohibiting a defender from landing on a quarterback with most or all of his body weight. The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers was injured on such a hit last season. Through the first two weeks of the season, roughing-the-passer penalties had more than doubled over the number called through Week 2 last season.
“I think we’re looking for the hit that took Aaron out last year, that little extra,” Matthews said Sunday. “If I wanted to hurt him, I could have. I could have put some extra on him. That’s football. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Unfortunately, this league is going in a direction I think a lot of people don’t like. 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.
“I don’t know. I’m going to just keep playing hard. Maybe now pass rushers, guys getting after the quarterback, you just have to attack the ball. I’ve been playing this game for over 20 years. That’s how you tackle. We’ll see. Something’s got to change. . . . These are big plays. . . . It’s unfortunate.”
Even some players in the Redskins’ locker room empathized.
“I’m just glad that was for us,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “But I’m not sure: What do you want him to do? There was no vicious intent. It was a nice form tackle.”
Said Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan: “We’ve got to adjust as pass rushers. They’re going to call it. They’ve made that clear. Tough deal for him.”
The officials did not call a penalty when Rodgers was tossed to the turf Sunday by Redskins defensive tackle Daron Payne. Rodgers could be heard complaining about the play when the referee’s microphone inadvertently was left on.
“I don’t want to complain for a call, but he kind of slammed me on my head on that one,” Rodgers said.
Wrolstad told Rodgers that he was unable to see the hit through the other players in his line of sight.
“They were worried in the preseason . . . about the targeting-type penalties that were going to get called,” Rodgers said after the game. “I haven’t really seen any of those. Obviously the one that’s been called a lot the first few weeks is the roughing the passer.”
Said Matthews: “I watched that on the sideline and said, ‘How come that’s not a flag?’ Let’s be honest: We’re talking about the MVP quarterback. He gets suplexed. That’s a good hit? But me, I put 250 pounds on a quarterback the right way and it becomes a flag. . . . I don’t know the direction in which it’s going. I don’t like it.”
Les Carpenter contributed to this report.
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