Checking the Tape on the NFL's Roughing the Passer Rule So Far

by Ian Wharton

The top storyline of the 2018 NFL season so far hasn’t been the exciting play of rookie quarterbacks, exploding passing games, or the parity across the league. It’s been the controversy surrounding suspect roughing the passer calls, including the new “body weight” rule. 

The NFL Rulebook defines the new interpretation as ““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 or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.”

That’s not unreasonable on paper. Spearing a quarterback like Roman Reigns would can’t be allowed. Almost every fan base has endured enough bad quarterback play at some point to recognize that protecting starters helps keep the league watchable. 

But through three weeks, the on-field calls of roughing the passer have risen, and the “body weight” interpretation has been disastrous. It’s affecting the results of games, the viewing experience, and how defenders are having to react. Instead of calling it as written, the referees have been drawing that little yellow handkerchief even when there’s nothing the defender can do and tries to show restraint.

Week 1 had several examples of penalties on what look like normal football plays and it affected outcomes. The most notable may have been Myles Garrett’s third-down hit on Ben Roethlisberger. 

The Steelers were granted a first-down after the important third-down stop, and then proceeded to score a touchdown the next play. The NFL admitted it was a bad call, but the Browns ended with a tie instead of a win and it’s possible that a no-call tips the scale into their favor.

One of the marquee games of Week 1 had two massive plays that may have altered the result. In Tampa Bay’s stunning road win in New Orleans, the Saints were called for back-to-back roughing the passer calls despite neither looking worthy of a flag. The Buccaneers had no issues scoring the rest of the day, but gained an 30 yards in field position off these two calls.

It didn’t end there. The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts seemed to be battling in a meaningless game of teams more likely to pick in the top-10 than fight for the playoffs, but both have played well in the opening month. The Bengals ended up pulling away from the Colts, but a roughing the passer on Carlos Dunlap erased a fumble that would’ve given them another touchdown before halftime.

The Green Bay Packers have their own budding chapter in all of this, too. The hit that took out quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2017 led to this rule’s conception, but now it’s killing the Packers. Clay Matthews Jr.’s career may legitimately be affected considering his manic play style. Through three weeks, he has three roughing the passers. Two were unjust.

The egregious call against Minnesota in Week 2 seemed like a breaking point for the league. This call negated a terrible Kirk Cousins interception that would’ve sealed the Packers victory. Instead, the Vikings tie the game and eventually the game finishes in overtime without a definitive result.

Earlier in the game was a fascinating display of a defender seemingly reacting to the risk of the penalty. Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels stopped short of Cousins, trying to wrap him up and earn a dead-ball whistle instead of slamming him down. This is basically unheard of. 

The uncertainty around what will be called and won’t be must end. The expectations for referees to make these snap-judgment calls might be too high, and adding replays that slow the game down even more isn’t a good solution. The instinct should be to not call a flag on a play like Matthews’ second “body weight” roughing the passer. 

With protection against lower-body and head hits, quarterbacks are as safe as ever. Passing touchdowns are soaring as rushing totals continue to dip. Player health is imperative but even that is backfiring with this rule.

Shockingly, Miami Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes tore his ACL on his sack of Derek Carr in Week 3. He appeared to attempt a rolling tackle, but his right leg landed awkwardly and at an angle that caused the tendon to tear. Hayes’ career may be in jeopardy as he’ll be 34 in the spring and coming off a major knee injury.

The penalties continue to fly, too. Monday Night Football of Week 3 saw another four roughing the passer calls, pushing the season total to 25. There were 106 total accepted penalties already in 2017, and that dwarfs the 69 total in 2009. 

Nobody wants to watch a game being decided by these crucial flags, and especially not when the standard is becoming more blurred.