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The NFL’s ‘solution’ to its roughing the passer rule falls short

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An upcoming rules call could mean fewer absurd roughing penalties.

Green Bay Packers v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The NFL won’t change its controversial new roughing the passer regulations during the season — but that doesn’t mean it won’t change the way the rule is enforced through the rest of 2018. A competition committee conference call held Wednesday addressed this fall’s biggest on-field controversy; the new roughing language that’s altered games and left fans and players wonder what is and isn’t a foul.

A statement released Thursday from NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent reiterated the league’s unwillingness to change its rulebook due to recent controversy, but expressed some wiggle room for calls moving forward.

In reiterating its position on quarterback protection, the committee determined there would be no changes to the point of emphasis approved this spring or to the rule, of which the body weight provision has been in place since 1995.

To ensure consistency in officiating the rule, the committee clarified techniques that constitute a foul.

Before the call, the Washington Post’s Mark Maske reported that while it was unlikely the rule would be changed, several members of the committee — unhappy with the new and inconsistent emphasis on these 15-yard personal fouls — would discuss less drastic changes. Vincent’s statement suggests unofficial clarifications have been made to how the rule is enforced on the field. The intention appears to be to keep the fervor revolving around these plays to a minimum for the rest of the season.

From Maske’s report:

“I’m not sure we can do anything this year,” one person with knowledge of the committee’s deliberations said.

Another person close to the process expressed similar sentiments, saying that no changes to the wording of the rule are expected. That person also said that no formal instructions to the on-field officials are likely to be made but it is expected that the roughing-the-passer rule will be called differently, with the shift in emphasis becoming clear through officiating videos distributed by the league.

“I think you’ll see a change going forward,” that person said.

Here’s what the league will be holding up as the gold standard for body weight roughing penalties going forward — the hit that stole the bulk of the 2017 season from Aaron Rodgers and sparked the impetus for the rule change the following offseason.

The NFL clearly needs to do something

Any noticeable change would be great news for Clay Matthews. The Packers pass rusher is the player most closely associated with the controversy of the new calls, having ran afoul of questionable roughing the passer flags in each of the past two weeks. His Week 2 penalty against the Vikings negated a game-clinching interception and forced Green Bay to settle for for an eventual tie against their arch-rival.

One week later, he’d draw another flag after charging through Washington’s Alex Smith.

While that penalty wouldn’t have a significant outcome on the game, it did raise Matthews’ ire in the locker room afterward.

“You see as soon as I hit the ground, you see me try to pull my hands up. Obviously when you a€™re 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.”

But Matthews might not be the most-screwed player as a result of the new body-weight rule. Dolphins defensive end William Hayes alleges his torn ACL happened as a result of trying not to land on Raiders QB Derek Carr during a Week 3 sack. The Browns also ran afoul of the rule, giving the Steelers an extra scoring opportunity in Week 1’s 21-21 tie in Cleveland.

The new roughing regulations have created a crapstorm on par with the league’s inability to determine what is and isn’t a catch. Fortunately, the NFL’s competition committee can effect change without an official rewrite of the rulebook. All it needs to do is communicate how it wants these plays called going forward.

We saw this earlier in 2018 when the league backed away from a new rule that penalized players for lowering their helmets to make a tackle. It also happened in 2015 when the league changed the way it penalized players for illegal use of hands to the face, then directed officials to be less vigilant when it came to enforcement during the regular season. A similar change could dissolve a new regulation that’s almost universally hated — and free Matthews up to finally earn a sack that doesn’t result in a 15-yard penalty.