In Week 2, the Green Bay Packers had to settle for a tie against the Minnesota Vikings thanks to a controversial roughing the passer penalty. In Week 3, their comeback effort against Washington slowed to a crawl thanks to a non-call on the quarterback who spurred the rule change in the first place — and then was nearly scuttled again Clay Matthews earned a flag for a similar hit minutes later.
That’s three weeks in a row Matthews has drawn a penalty because of the league’s confusing new rule that nobody seems to know how to interpret.
First, no call for Rodgers this time
Facing second-and-14, Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass before getting crushed by Da’Ron Payne for the rookie’s first NFL sack. It was a big play for the young lineman, but Payne landed atop the Packer quarterback with the bulk of his body weight — a move that was put under the microscope this offseason and resulted in a litany of 15-yard roughing the passer calls in 2018.
It’s the kind of play with which Rodgers is intimately familiar. A similar hit in 2017 shattered the quarterback’s collarbone and served as the impetus for the rule change that makes landing on a QB with your body weight a personal foul.
But despite being the inspiration for the new regulation, Rodgers wasn’t able to benefit from it. The umpire behind the play would later explain he didn’t throw his flag because he didn’t see the play clearly. Two plays later, Green Bay would lose the ball on a turnover on downs, leaving Washington’s 28-17 lead intact as the clock flipped over to the fourth quarter.
When reporters asked Matthews what he thought of the no-call, the veteran linebacker was equal parts confused and annoyed.
“Was that the one where Aaron got suplexed?” said Matthews. “You know what, I watched that on the sideline and said, ‘How come that’s not a flag?,’ We’re talking about -- hey, let’s be honest -- we’re talking about the MVP quarterback gets suplexed, that’s a good hit? But me, I put 250 pounds on a quarterback the right way, and here comes a flag.”Minutes later, debate about the league’s roughing rules flared up once more — this time with another familiar face at the center of the complaints.
The refs still found a way to flag Clay Matthews for roughing the passer
While no one’s really sure what does and does not constitute a roughing penalty in 2018, referees across the league can agree on one thing: that Clay Matthews is getting flagged whenever he gets near a quarterback.
Matthews earned his third roughing penalty in as many weeks after breaking through the Washington line and smashing through quarterback Alex Smith. He was promptly flagged thanks to his inability to suspend the laws of gravity and instead falling on top of the player he was tackling.
The play gave the Washington offense a brief respite, but that drive eventually ended with a punt, saving Green Bay some extra frustration. Not that it helped head coach Mike McCarthy’s blood pressure much.
McCarthy wasn’t the only one confused by the call.
“I just don’t know what more he’s supposed to do,” CBS’s officiating expert Dean Blandino opined after the play. “I don’t like that as a foul.”
Fans and analysts on Twitter, predictably, had complaints as well.
How the hell is that a penalty on Clay Matthews??— Adam Schein (@AdamSchein) September 23, 2018
Honestly, I don't even know what to say at this point. The NFL has told these guys to not land on the QB, must roll off. That's precisely what Clay Matthews did. When a player does exactly as instructed and gets a flag anyway, something is terribly wrong.— Ryan Wood (@ByRyanWood) September 23, 2018
Roughing the passer. Clay Matthews may actually kill a referee at this point pic.twitter.com/ta9zJqrAOO— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) September 23, 2018
McCarthy was ready to wash his hands of the whole situation in his postgame press conference.
“I thought Clay did exactly what he’s supposed to do there,” said McCarthy. “He hit him with his shoulder, he was coming full speed off of a block, he braced himself, so I was fine with what Clay did.”
“Those are questions for someone else. I’m not really interested in answering any more officiating questions.”
And Matthews, as expected, did not agree with the call.
“You see as soon as I hit the ground, you see me try to pull my hands up. Obviously when you are tackling a guy from the front, you’re gonna land on him,” Matthews told reporters. “I understand the spirit of the rule, I said it 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, asked him, ‘What do you think? What can I do differently? Because that’s a football play.’
”Of course, like I said last week, NFL’s gonna come back, say I put my body on him, but that’s a football play. I hit him from the front, got my head across, wrapped up. I’ve never heard of anybody tackling somebody without any hands. When he gives himself up as soon as you hit him, your body weight’s going to go on him. I think we’re looking for the hits that took Aaron [Rodgers] out last year, that little extra. If I wanted to hurt him, I could have. I could’ve put some extra on him. That’s football.”
Despite getting crushed, Rodgers is in favor of rolling back the new roughing rules
Rodgers, at least in theory, is set to benefit from stricter roughing the passer guidelines. But he thinks the NFL’s latest rule change goes too far.
Aaron Rodgers says some of the rules to protect QBs help, and some "maybe are going the wrong direction." pic.twitter.com/RaUXRYdMBs— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 20, 2018
We enjoy the protection below the knee and above the shoulders, but I don’t know many quarterbacks who want those calls. There are very few opportunities in the game for us to show any kind of toughness. We’re not getting hit every play. Hopefully not. The one on me, I don’t think that’s roughing the passer either, you know? There’s a goal to limit these hits, but they are pretty obvious when you see them. A guy picking somebody up and full weight on them. What do you say to Clay? His head is out of it, his hand is on the ground, that’s not roughing the passer. Same thing with Kendricks. What do you say to him on that? I didn’t get up off the ground thinking, ‘Where’s the penalty?’ I saw a late flag and couldn’t believe there was a penalty on the play.
They’re trying to think about the process of the game and the safety and stuff, but it’s still a collision sport and those, to me, are not penalties.
The NFL doesn’t agree. In fact, the league’s officials are doubling down on the flag that served Matthews his third roughing penalty of the season.
This is a foul for roughing the passer - the defender lands “with all or most of the defender’s weight” on the passer. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(b): https://t.co/s9YKN8NLuT #GBvsWAS pic.twitter.com/ei2QZkvvzx— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) September 23, 2018
On Sunday, at least for one play, Rodgers was right. Payne drove him into the turf with no recourse from the referees. Then, four plays later, the body weight rule was back in effect for Matthews, who suffered from a questionable call for the second straight week. This level of inconsistency is making a bad rule worse — and no one knows more about it than the Packers.