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How to fix the NFL’s confusing roughing the passer rules

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The league’s ever expanding rules for roughing the passer have now ruined two games in two weeks. It’s time to rethink them.

When Anthony Barr crashed into Aaron Rodgers in Week 5 of the 2017 NFL season, he landed on the All-Pro quarterback with all his body weight. It was a play that snapped Rodgers’ collarbone and Green Bay’s eight-year postseason streak at the same time. In Week 2, nearly one full year later, the rippling effects of that hit and the league’s impetus on protecting quarterbacks found a way to cost the Packers another win.

It happened again this week ... to the Packers, to Clay Matthews for the third week in a row.

Barr’s hit on Rodgers led to a physics-defying 2018 rule change that bars defensive players from landing on a quarterback with their full body weight. That rule and a renewed emphasis on quarterback safety that leaves lots of room for official interpretation and human error has had a serious impact on no fewer than two games through two weeks this fall.

Defensive players are not allowed to land on opposing quarterbacks after tackling them or pick them up and drive them into the ground — a confusing clarification since that motion would commonly be described as a “tackle.” Doing so results in a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty.

That means fairly innocent looking plays like this ...

... can now be interception-negating, game-altering penalties.

The script this week and the reactions were much the same as it was last week.

With 1:37 left in a tightly-contested Week 2 game, Matthews’ pressure helped force Cousins into his second interception in as many drives. That turnover would have given Green Bay the ball at the Minnesota 18-yard line with an eight-point lead. It should have effectively ended the game — but the veteran linebacker made the mistake of being vulnerable to gravity, and when his momentum carried him through and kinda-sorta on top of Cousins, the umpire’s flag flew to the turf.

The interception was overturned. The penalty awarded 15 yards to the Vikings and new life. Eight plays later, they’d tie the game to set up overtime. From there, only rookie Daniel Carlson’s kicking crapulence — he’d miss three field goals on the day, including 35- and 49-yarders in overtime — could keep the Packers from a loss.

While it would have been tempting to blame the call on the league’s new rule that forces a roughing penalty whenever a player lands on a quarterback with most or all of his body weight, the official pool report on the flag suggested the play would have been a valid penalty even before 2018.

According to referee Tony Corrente, the flag was thrown because “[Matthews] lifted [Cousins] and drove him into the ground.” His guideline for avoiding a penalty on the play was as brief as it was infuriating: “[Matthews should have] not picked him up and drove him into the ground,

“It has nothing to do with the rule of full body weight. It has nothing to do with helmet to helmet. He picked the quarterback up and drove him into the ground,” Corrente expounded.

A questionable explanation — and one Matthews isn’t buying.

“I have so many emotions running through as far as what a terrible call it was,” a visibly frustrated Matthews told reporters after the game. “At the same time, I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know. You let me know. You tell me. Did I put pressure on him? I thought I hit him within his waist to chest, I got my head across, put my hands down. To call it at that point in the game is unbelievable.

”Last week [when a Matthews late hit gave the Bears new life in an eventual Packers win], OK, shame on me. This week, that’s unbelievable. The worst part is, we’ll probably send it in and you know what they’re going to say? They’ll find fault on me because they’re going to agree with the refs. I don’t know. It’s a difficult call to call.

”You see how it changed the game. I know there’s an emphasis on protecting quarterbacks, but it’s gotten out of control. I don’t know what else to do. It’s frustrating because Jaire’s interception, that’s game [over], right? Instead, they go down and score, overtime, this and that.

”We had opportunities to win the game, no doubt about it, but frustrating to allow a call which I feel like I did the right thing to influence the game. I don’t know. I’m trying to bite my tongue, but I obviously don’t agree with it.”

Two of the league’s former officiating czars were more blunt with their assessment of the rule.

They not the only players baffled by the league’s QB protection rules — and the Packers aren’t the first team to get screwed by them.

The Browns ran afoul of the NFL’s awful new QB-protecting rule in Week 1

Week 2’s Vikings-Packers tilt had a surprising amount in common with an opening week game between the Steelers and Browns. Each was an important matchup between divisional rivals. Each saw kickers from either side miss potential game-winning field goals. Each ended in a tie thanks to the league’s rules that punish tacklers for succumbing to gravity and inertia.

Myles Garrett had an explosive season debut, racking up three tackles for loss and finally getting the opportunity to sack Ben Roethlisberger. But one second quarter third-and-7 pressure turned a Roethlisberger red zone incompletion into a new set of downs and, one play later, a Pittsburgh touchdown that made it 7-0.

That was a four-point swing that loomed over a 21-21 draw in Week 1. But unlike yesterday’s Corrente-affirmed call, NFL officials admitted Garrett’s hit should not have resulted in a penalty.

“The rule specifically says ‘most, if not all, of your body weight,’ ” NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron told NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero. “So we want that player to make an effort. And the last three or four weeks, we have pulled extensive video to show the clubs exactly what we’re talking about, and we probably last week showed 5 to 1 or 6 to 1 of legal hits, or legal contact, as opposed to illegal contact. Because the question we get all the time is, well, what do you want our players to do?

”Well, they have to not put the weight on the quarterback. And this one (on Garrett) yesterday showed, even though there is some body weight on (Steelers quarterback) Ben (Roethlisberger), this is not what we would consider contact that rises to the level of a foul.”

But that meant four of the five body-weight roughing calls in Week 1 were deemed legitimate. And those weren’t even half of the 14 roughing calls made in total for the opening week. That’s more than double the amount of roughing the passer calls the NFL saw in 2017, and it’s become impossible to ignore. Even Kurt Warner, a man who loves pretty much everything in this world, especially offense, kinda hates it.

Joe Thomas, a man who spent a Hall of Fame career protecting quarterbacks, was similarly concerned — and he wants these plays to be reviewable.

So how can the NFL fix this?

Thomas’ idea could work, but it would also bring more attention to a questionable rule while slowing down the pace of the game with extra replays.

There are other things the NFL could do too.

The league’s body weight roughing the passer rule was a nebulous tweak that only changed one word from an existing regulation. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9 formerly stated:

“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 on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.”

In 2018, that “and” became “or,” widely broadening the scope of the rule and removing much of the referee’s judgement from the call.

The easy solution would be to revert the rule back to its previous wording, effectively admitting the change was a mistake and that Rodgers’ 2017 collarbone injury was the exception and not the rule when defenders follow through with their hits in the backfield. The NFL, however, isn’t great about backtracking or admitting fault — you don’t have to look much further than the continuing debate over the league’s national anthem policy to see that.

If criticism of the rule reaches a fever pitch — and we may not be far off — a league-wide memo to officiating crews could lead to a de-emphasis on the modified regulations. These calls could quietly go away, and all it would take is a couple sentences from the league’s main offices. It would reduce the impact of not just the new rule but also any older ones that could lead to questionable flags like the one that gave Minnesota new life Sunday.

The question is whether or not the NFL is ready to take the loss on an initiative aimed at protecting players.

Coming into the season, it looked as though the new helmet rule would change the way football was played in the NFL and frustrate fans and players with inconsistent calls. In the end, it wasn’t the new lowering-the-helmet penalty that has pushed offenses downfield at the expense of confused defenders, but the league’s latest attempt to keep its biggest stars healthy.

There’s still time to fix it — but the powers that be had better hope the NFC North race isn’t decided by a Week 2 Vikings-Packers tie that should have been a home win for Green Bay.