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The NFL’s roughing the passer rule is asking refs to do the impossible, again

Former NFL official Terry McAulay gives some background on officials being stuck making controversial calls, and how things will likely improve.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL’s biggest controversy through three weeks of the 2018 season has been it’s roughing the passer rule with regards to body weight. Players, coaches, and fans all have fair gripes over the rule. The way it’s been called so far is unreasonable.

The rule reads as such:

A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as “stuffing” a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball ... When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer.

There are many examples showing that the expectation for players to not take their body weight to the ground with them in order to make a tackle is impossible in most cases. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has found himself on the wrong end of these calls weekly on routine plays without ill intent. Dolphins DE William Hayes claims to have torn his ACL trying to do the impossible by not landing on Derek Carr.

The rule has also put officials in a terrible position by having to call something that’s clearly just a part of the game.

However, it’s not the first time that officials have been stuck making calls they know aren’t right.

Terry McAulay, an official in the NFL for two decades and current NBC Sports rules analyst, recalls during the early to mid-2000s when new roughing the passer rules were implemented that were focused on contact to the quarterback’s head.

“If the head moved at all on contact, we were calling a foul,” he says. “Of course you were getting those glancing, inadvertent, unintentional blows — we’d call it a blow — glances that we were calling fouls and people were going nuts and we didn’t like making them, but that was the correction.”

Along with the contact to the quarterback’s head, there was also controversy when hits on defenseless receivers started being flagged in 2010. “It was really really tough because no official at any level ever had to make that call before, and we knew our accuracy wasn’t going to be great,” McAulay says. “But the importance of the player safety aspect required that we all figured it out.”

And it did get figured out, but McAulay acknowledges it wasn’t an immediate fix. It took multiple seasons to get the accuracy to a point where everybody could live with the rule, and adjustments went beyond officials as well.

“Defenders, they got much better at not hitting defenseless receivers — with the over launching helmet to helmet — and then officials got better with recognizing when it was illegal, and when it wasn’t,” he says. “Now obviously, mistakes are still made by players and officials, but it’s in a pretty good spot right now.”

However, the body weight roughing the passer calls will largely be in the hands of officials because of the nature of the play.

Right now, the NFL isn’t giving officials any wiggle room.

In the case of Matthews, his last penalty is a pretty routine play, where he wraps up Alex Smith and completes the tackle. Sure, he lands on top of Smith, but it’s physically impossible to stop his momentum.

Players, coaches, officials, and fans can all agree that Matthews didn’t have ill intent there. However, officials aren’t being given a choice at the moment. They’re stuck making the call because it’s a “point of emphasis” this season. It requires officials to make the call as the rule is written.

“If it’s just a football act that has no additional action that clearly shows that the defender is putting the quarterback at risk, I think the referee should have the discretion to not make that call,” McAulay says.

“Right now, I believe the league has kind of thrown out that unnecessarily, removed that discretion from the referee, and said if you see full body weight, just throw the flag, players will adjust, and we’ll eventually be safer.”

The rule isn’t going anywhere, but it’ll be called more reasonably in the future.

The NFL implemented the change in the wake of Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone last year, when he was driven into the ground by Anthony Barr. It was created with good intentions, but as history has shown, there’s always going to be an adjustment period with new rules.

“Nobody was happy that they were going to have to make [calls on defenseless receivers], but everybody clearly understood its importance,” McAulay says. “The league was very supportive as errors were being made. Some of them were game-deciding or game-influencing situations, but the league continued to support, and it kind of got us to where we are today in a pretty good place with defenseless players.”

The NFL’s competition committee is having a (previously scheduled) meeting next week, and will be discussing the rule and how it’s called. Members of the committee are reportedly not happy with the current emphasis, and will likely make clarifications on how the penalty is called.

In a conference call on Tuesday, Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira suggested the committee could look to make the emphasis more on a second act where a “lift and drive” would constitute a penalty. It’s essentially describes the play that Barr hit Rodgers on that inspired the rule.

“There is something to be said about what the league’s trying to do,” McAulay says. “I just think that they moved it too far. Bringing it back just a little bit would really benefit everybody, both players and officials.”