NFL expert Lindsey Prather details the chaos the roughing-the-passer rule has caused in the NFL.
In Week 5 of the 2017 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings’ Anthony Barr landed on Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, snapping his collarbone. This prompted the league to institute and enforce a stricter roughing-the-passer penalty in 2018.
The goal of this new rule was to further protect the QB position and preempt any claims about apathy regarding player safety.
Defensive players are not allowed to land on QBs after tackling them or drive them into the ground — a confusing description, because that motion could arguably be described as a “tackle.” Doing so results in a 15-yard penalty.
Despite good intentions, the enforcement of this penalty has led to some less-than-stellar results. Barr’s hit on Rodgers led to a rule that forces defenders to either defy physics to avoid landing on a quarterback with their full body weight, or hand the opposing team 15 yards. In a league with questionable officiating, there is too much room for interpretation. Human error has had a serious impact on several games so far this season, as well as the safety of players beyond the QB.
Ironically, one of the most egregious enforcements of this rule came against the Green Bay Packers in Week 2. With 1:37 left in a close game, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews forced Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins into his second interception. The turnover would have given Green Bay the ball at the Minnesota 18-yard line with an eight-point lead, effectively ending the game. However, the celebration was cut short when Matthews’ momentum carried him through and on top of Cousins.
The interception was overturned. The penalty awarded 15 yards to the Vikings, and a new set of downs. One eight-play drive later, they tied the game to set up overtime. From there, only the shortcomings of Vikings kicker Daniel Carlson kept the Packers from a loss.
A more recent example can be found in the first quarter of the Sept. 30 game between the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns. Oakland’s rookie defensive end Arden Key got penalized for roughing the passer in a call that most people disagreed with.
Just last week, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield completed a pass to running back Duke Johnson. Key gave a shove to Mayfield but made no effort to knock him down. Despite this, Key was called for a penalty that gave the Browns 15 additional yards in addition to the 19 yards already gained on the play.
When defenders are unable to touch the QB for fear of penalizing their team, the result can be dangerous. The unintended consequence of over-enforcing this rule became apparent in Week 3. On Sept. 23, Dolphins defensive end William Hayes tore his right ACL as he attempted to avoid landing on top of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr during a sack. Hayes is now out for the season, and it would be surprising if he ends up being the only casualty of this rule.
The NFL’s desire to protect QBs is understandable; big-name QBs and decent teams are extremely marketable. The NFL also needs to make the sport safer for players. But it has to do so in a way that makes sense, not with another confusing, inconsistent, unclear rule that can lead to changes in the outcome of games on a whim.