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Mike Tomlin is pissed off about the NFL’s roughing the passer penalty, and he should be

It wasn’t just a problem for the Steelers this week either. Teams and players keep getting burned by this, and it’s a real problem.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One week. We had one week, last week, where the NFL’ roughing the passer rule wasn’t a total shitshow. The braintrust that came up with it in the first place had a conference call, didn’t make any changes to the impossible rule, but did quietly issue some clarifications that took some of the stupidity out of it.

We should have known it wouldn’t last.

This week, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was again spared the arbitrary wrath of an inexplicable flag. Instead, Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt got served up as the league’s sacrifice to a nonsensical rule. His teammate Jon Bostic got one too.

Mike Tomlin is mad AF, and you can’t blame him

It had to happen to the Steelers too, a team already volatile. At least they got the win. I can only imagine Mike Tomlin’s reaction if they’d lost, and he was plenty pissed off after Sunday’s game.

He made a direct attack on the penalties:

“Those looked like legitimate calls, we’ve gotta be better there, but some of the other stuff, man, is a joke. We’ve gotta get better as a National Football League. Man, these penalties are costing people games and jobs. We’ve gotta get them correct. So I’m pissed about it, to be quite honest with you, but that’s all I’m gonna say on it.”

The brutally honest comments unsurprisingly cost him some money:

But so what? Tomlin was absolutely right. Point. To. The. Lie.

Watt’s older brother, J.J. (perhaps you’ve heard of him), asked a very pertinent question about the hit that we are all wondering:

T.J. Watt said after the game he did everything he could to avoid “roughing” the quarterback on that play.

“I understand the rules. I’m not a dirty player. I tried to pull off him at the end. Whether the ref saw it or not, I understand why they call it. It was a low hit. But I tried to pull my arms off. We’ll see if I get a check in the mail or not. ... It puts us in a bind because I don’t know what else I can do. I couldn’t have rolled off, then I risk hitting someone in the knees or hurting myself.”

T.J. was fined $20K for the play, something his brother was angry about too — and he wasn’t the only one:

When asked about the call on Bostic, the game’s referee told him he didn’t know why it was a penalty either.

The Steelers weren’t the only team to get burned by the rule this week

There were 11 roughing the passer penalties in Week 5, bringing the season total up to 50 so far. And the infractions, mostly, are about as ticky tack and random as you can imagine.

49ers cornerback Ku’Waun Williams got a flag because his arm hit Cardinals QB Josh Rosen’s facemask while Williams was turning in mid air to avoid hitting Rosen.

The Eagles really got screwed on a call against Michael Bennett in a loss to the Vikings on Sunday. Bennett went to tackle Kirk Cousins above the knees, to avoid the penalty, but he slipped while he was bringing him down. FLAG.

The call might have flipped the game for the Vikings too. Minnesota was able to extend the drive because of the 15-yard penalty, instead of facing a third-and-35. They scored, and that put them up 17-3 at the half.

Eagles players were livid, screaming about the call as they headed into the locker room.

Referee Walt Coleman explained it this way:

“He went low into the quarterback’s knees with his shoulder, with force. And the rule is that you cannot hit the quarterback low at the knee area or below with force. He got him there with his shoulder, so that’s what I had as far as roughing the passer.”

That falls under the roughing the passer rules from before this season’s infamous “body weight” addition, and Coleman’s an experienced ref. But it’s still symptomatic of the larger problem here — there’s no consistency or room for judgement calls when players touch a quarterback who happens to fall to the ground.

“It wasn’t like he was putting him in danger,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “I know they don’t want low hits on the quarterback, but if you’re falling down, I guess you’re supposed to just let the quarterback go? The explanation from the official is he has to avoid that hit, which means he can’t do his job. He can’t tackle the quarterback while he has the ball.”

Why does this rule suck so much?

It’s the inconsistency, stupid. Textbook tackles are being punished now alongside malicious takedowns that really do deserve a flag. It’s not fair to players who are only getting flags telling them what they can or can’t do, despite the fact the rule emphasis obviously represents a major sea change for defenders.

And it’s a rule being enforced by the most inexperienced group of officials in years.

Don’t put it all on the refs though. They’re doing what they’re told to do by the guys who sign their checks.

Owners doubled down on the roughing the passer rule this season in part to protect their investments in quarterbacks. Plus, the league’s been so fixed on expanding the offensive element of the game over the years because of its appeal to a wider audience. It’s hard not to wonder if the recent ratings decline of the last few seasons has anything to do with this too.

Pass rushers spoke to SB Nation’s Natalie Weiner about the rules and how much harder their jobs are as a result. You should also re-read retired NFL defensive end Stephen White’s assessment of the rule and its folly. Nobody’s going to explain it better than he did. In short, this is some ass-covering PR stunting by owners, who never sought or listened to player input.

Tomlin’s outrage over the rule is perfectly justified. It’s also worth pointing out he’s on the competition committee, so he’s uniquely positioned to do something about it or at least use his direct line to the league’s brass to lobby for a fix. But even that has its limits if it touches the upper bounds of the NFL pretending like its doing something about player safety.

But you know what, even if they do fix yet another mess they created, nobody should forget the Keystone Kops manner in which the NFL slapped together these rule changes this past offseason. And the next time the league claims to be committed to player safety, maybe be a little more skeptical before you buy that hook, line, and sinker.

Remember the catch rule and what a mess that was? This has the potential to be 100 times worse. This rule is even more arbitrarily applied. Refs on the field more pressure to enforce the rule while at the same time having less discretion to stand on their own judgement lest it be overturned by the league’s centralized officiating center in a black box somewhere on Park Avenue.

Worse, the more fans have to see it, have to hear their favorite team’s players’ exasperation over the rule deciding the outcome of games, it’s just going to give them one more reason to watch something else on Sundays.