Breaking Down the Roughing the Passer Penalties

It was Oct. 15, 2017. The Green Bay Packers were playing the Minnesota Vikings in a critical divisional matchup.

On the second Packers drive of the game, Aaron Rodgers rolled out to his right. With Vikings outside linebacker Anthony Barr bearing down on him, Rodgers ditched the ball. What happened next changed the landscape for the entire NFL season.

A split second after Rodgers threw the ball, Barr drilled Rodgers. The hit was entirely clean by NFL rules, but Rodgers was down in a heap on the U.S. Bank Stadium turf. Rodgers had broken his collarbone for the second time in his career and would only appear in one more game for the remainder of the season.

With Rodgers hurt, the Packers were all but out of the divisional race. The Vikings cruised to a 13-3 record and the divisional crown, while the Packers ended a disappointing 7-9 in what felt very much like a lost season.

The following offseason, the NFL instituted what some have called the “Rodgers Rule.” Under this rule, defenders were no longer permitted to put all or a majority of their body weight on the quarterback when tackling them.

Through the first three weeks of this NFL season there have been 34 roughing the passer penalties under this new rule change. At this point in 2017, there were 16 such penalties; in 2016, just 20. In Week 2, in a game ironically being played between the Packers and Vikings, this new rule was given national scrutiny.

With the Vikings trailing by eight points deep in their own territory with time winding down, quarterback Kirk Cousins chucked up a desperation heave to wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

This ball was intercepted, nailing the final nail in the coffin for the Vikings.

Amidst the celebration between the Packers sideline and the rowdy fans at Lambeau Field, nobody noticed the yellow penalty flag that had been thrown in the offensive backfield. The penalty was on veteran linebacker Clay Matthews for roughing the passer.

Replays showed that Matthews appeared to hit Cousins cleanly. However, under the new and confusing rule, the Vikings were awarded a first down and one last chance. Cousins preceded to march the Vikings down the field and tie the game.

After the game, Matthews, understandably upset and bewildered, said, “You see how it changed the game. I know there’s an emphasis on protecting quarterbacks, but it’s gotten out of control.”

With already building resentment around the league against the rules in place to protect the quarterback, the final straw may have come in a game featuring the Raiders and the Dolphins.

Early in the second quarter, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr took the shotgun snap and looked to throw. Dolphins defensive end William Hayes broke through the Raiders offensive line and buried Carr inside the 5-yard line. When the play was over, Hayes was in visible pain. Soon after it was reported that Hayes had torn his ACL and was done for the season.

Players suffering season-ending injuries is always terrible, but not uncommon in the NFL.

The abnormality of this injury has to do with what Dolphins head coach Adam Gase had to say about it after the game. “He tore his ACL on that sack. He was trying to not put body weight on the quarterback. His foot got caught in the ground.” Gase specifically noted that Hayes was trying to avoid putting all his weight on Carr to avoid a penalty. Multiple players reached out in support of Hayes and against the NFL rules.

Former All-Pro and current 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted, “They don’t care about the rest of us getting hurt. Long as the QB is safe.” Linebacker Bobby Wagner responded to Sherman’s tweet saying, “This is very true. If a QB got hurt they would create a new rule today.”

This has quickly become a real problem for the NFL. This small roughing the passer rule change was supposed to be nothing more than an effort to further protect the quarterback position from injury. Instead, the inconsistency of enforcement and the appearance of diversion from past play are causing headaches.

However, this rule has cost some teams chances to win games and has cost a player his season. NFL Network reporter Judy Battista wrote that “several” members of the NFL’s competition committee are “uncomfortable” with these controversial roughing the passer calls thus far this year.

Whether this means that the league is eyeing toward updating or changing the rules is anyone’s guess. However, it does show that the NFL at least realizes that it has a real problem on its hands. Games are always supposed to be decided by the players. Yet, games are being decided by who can hit the quarterback the softest.

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