New Roughing the Passer Rule

Take a look at our detailed explanation of the NFL's new roughing the passer rule and the penalties that have resulted as we attempt to answer the question – has trying to keep the quarterback safe in football gone too far?

In an effort to make the brutal game of football somewhat safer for defenseless quarterbacks, the NFL has slightly tweaked its roughing the passer rule and the results have been mixed at best.

Players on defense are wondering exactly how they can get their bodies to do what it would take to tackle a quarterback legally, short of defying the laws of physics.

Fans are upset that there have already been many roughing calls this season that looked unnecessary and that have affected the outcome of some games.

Even quarterbacks, though most likely grateful to be safer, are wondering if this new ‘softer’ way to play football ruins the sport for everyone.

What was this rule change?

How and why did it come about?

How has it affected the quality of the games?

Here are some basic questions answered regarding the NFL’s new roughing the passer rule.

What exactly is the NFL rule for roughing the passer?

It’s important to understand that there are several aspects to the rule, so let’s break it down based on how it read last season.

1. Defenders are not allowed to hit the quarterback after he’s thrown the ball.

The NFL rule states:

Roughing will be called if, in the Referee’s judgment, a pass rusher clearly should have known that the ball had already left the passer’s hand before contact was made; pass rushers are responsible for being aware of the position of the ball in passing situations.

2. Pass rushers are not allowed to roughly land on the quarterback as he’s being tackled.

The NFL rules states:

A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as “stuffing” a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball ... 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 land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer.”

3. Defenders are not allowed to hit the quarterback in the head.

The NFL rule states:

In covering the passer position, Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area.

4. You can’t hit the quarterback below the knees.

The NFL rule states:

A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee. It is not a foul if the defender is blocked (or fouled) into the passer and has no opportunity to avoid him.

How is the roughing the passer penalty enforced?

The penalty results in 15 yards from the previous spot and an automatic first down.

If the refs deem the penalty to be ‘flagrant,’ the player can be ejected from the game.

Are there times when these rules don’t apply to the quarterback?

Yes, if the quarterback leaves the pocket or takes off running.

In that case, he loses the protection of the one-step rule for pass-rushers and the prohibition on hits below the knees.

Why do quarterbacks get such focused consideration for their safety?

It comes down to the fact that quarterbacks, like kickers and snappers, must put their bodies into unnatural positions in order to do their jobs. While in the throwing (or kicking or snapping) motion, the player’s body becomes defenseless, and that puts them at risk to injury since they’re not able to brace for contact.

Plus, quarterbacks are the face of the franchise in most cases, so keeping them protected in the game is of paramount importance to the team and the league.

So what part of the rule changed this offseason?

The league actually changed just one word of the 2017 NFL rulebook.

It’s the part where it specified that “a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw [the quarterback] down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.”

This offseason the league decided to change the ‘and’ into an ‘or’ and it’s made all the difference.

Now, refs will penalize players if they throw the quarterback down or land on him.

It’s just one small conjunction changed, but it’s made a huge difference in how refs now call the penalty.

Why did that slight change make such a huge difference?

Before the change, refs would only call a roughing penalty if a defensive player violently threw the quarterback down while also landing on him with their full weight.

The problem with that was a defensive player could correctly tackle a quarterback without violently throwing him down but still land on him in a way that’s dangerous. Because of the ‘and’ in the rule, that wasn’t considered a penalty.

Because of the rule change, the refs are not only watching to see if the defensive player throws a quarterback down, they’re also watching the end of every legal tackle to determine if the player plops his body weight onto the quarterback.

Now with only one or the other necessary to call the penalty, many more flags have been thrown as a result.

Was there a particular on-field incident that led to the rule changes?

Yes, it happened in Week 6 last season.

During a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr legally took down Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as he was scrambling. The 255-pound Barr landed with his body weight fully on top of Rodgers, and as a result Rodgers was slammed to the ground directly on his shoulder and his collarbone snapped.

There was no penalty issued to Barr, but there would have been this season given the rule change.

Rodgers’ injury kept him out for the rest of the 2017 season and that’s what inspired the league to put the new ‘body slamming’ rule into effect.

How many more roughing the passer penalties have been called this season compared to others?

In the first 3 weeks of the 2018 season, the amount of roughing the passer penalties in the NFL has more than doubled.

Last year after three weeks of football games, referees called 16 roughing penalties. By the end of Week 3 this season, 33 roughing penalties have been called, which is 52% more.

During the 2016 season, 89 roughing the passer penalty flags were thrown for 1,216 yards for an average of 2.78 roughing penalties per team.

In 2017, refs called 107 roughing penalties for 1,481 yards for an average of 3.34 roughing penalties per team.

At the rate this particular penalty is being called so far this season, refs are on track to call a total of 176 roughing penalties by the end of the 16 weeks, which doesn’t include the playoffs. That would amount to 5.5 roughing penalties per team.

At the rate of 15 yards penalized per flag, that’s roughly a total of 2,640 yards worth of penalties expected, give or take some ‘half the distance to the goal’ situations.

How badly were quarterbacks getting injured before the rules?

2017 saw a lot of season ending quarterback injuries. Not all were the direct result of roughing the passer violations, but given the number of hurt quarterbacks, it’s obvious that these men are playing one of the more vulnerable and dangerous football positions.

  • Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck sat out the season to recover from shoulder surgery.
  • Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6.
  • The Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill’s knee failed him again and his season was finished.
  • Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford’s damaged knee ended yet another season for him.
  • Arizona Cardinals’ Carson Palmer broke his left arm in the Week 7 game against the Rams, sat out the season and then promptly retire from the game.
  • Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson tore his ACL in practice on a non-contact injury before Week 9 and sat out the rest of the year.
  • Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston missed three games due to a shoulder injury.
  • Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr (back), Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota (hamstring) and Miami Dolphins’ Jay Cutler (ribs) all missed a start to injury in 2017, but each returned to the starting lineup.

How have these new rules impacted football?

The new roughing rule has affected game results and confused the players.

The most obvious game-changing example was in Week 2 when the Vikings played the Packers at Lambeau Field.  On the play where Matthews got called for roughing, the Packers had intercepted the ball. They were up 29-21 with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter and the interception was returned deep into Vikings’ territory. What should have been a game-winning play for Green Bay ended up being a 15-yard gain for the Vikings.

Minnesota drove down the field and scored a touchdown and a two point conversion, tying the game at 29 as the game entered overtime, and that’s sadly how it ended.

The Browns might have beaten the Steelers in Week 1 had it not been for a roughing call on Myles Garrett. The play put the Steelers at the Browns’ four-yard line with  a new set of downs instead of forcing them to kick a field goal. The Steelers scored a touchdown on the next play and tied the ballgame, and after a horribly unproductive overtime, that’s how the game ended.

NFL players are confused.

Now Clay Matthews has no idea how to tackle a quarterback correctly under this new rule, and a lot of other defensive players are just as bewildered. The refs are enforcing the rule inconsistently which adds to the uncertainty.  Bottom line, the way players have been tackling quarterbacks for decades is no longer legal and it’s going to take a while for them to re-learn such a basic football skill.

Which defensive player has been penalized the most for roughing the passer?

The winner of that sad category is Green Bay Packers Clay Matthews, who’s had three.

He’s been quoted as saying it’s an indication that the NFL is “getting soft.”

When asked about his hit against Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith, Mathews said, “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 is going to go on him.”

Tied for second place is Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap and New Orleans defensive tackle David Onyemata, who both have 2 roughing penalties apiece.

Have any defensive players been injured because of the rule change?

Yes. In Week 3, in an attempt not to injure Raider’s Derek Carr, the quarterback he was tackling, Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes tried to maneuver his body in a way that actually tore his own ACL. He’ll miss the rest of the season as a result.

Afterwards, Carr told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I wish the guy would have just landed on me instead of tearing his ACL. For him to tear his ACL, nobody wants that. I don't want that."

How do defensive players feel about the new rule?

After being called for roughing Washington Redskins’ quarterback Alix Smith last Sunday, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said at a press conference:

“When you’re tackling a guy from the front, you’re going to land on him. I understand the spirit of the rule. When you have a hit like that, that’s a football play. I even went up to Alex Smith after the game and asked him: What do you think? What can I do differently?”  

Later he added, “…every week this gets a little bit harder as far as what they're asking us to do."

Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger said Monday that Sunday’s penalty against Matthews was “a bad call” involving a “horrible rule” that “should be taken out.”

Swearinger continued: “The game happens too fast. It’s a grown man’s game. It’s not a referee’s game. You’ve got to know the game. You’ve got to be able to play the game to be able to put rules out. The game happens too fast. ... I don’t know what you’d ask Clay to do. It’s not football.”

Redskins cornerback Josh Norman isn’t happy about the rule change at all. On ESPN Radio’s Spain and Fitz show, he’s quoted as saying, “It's sad that you take away the thing that makes foot­ball, foot­ball, and that's be­ing in the dirt. That, my friend, re­al­ly is pret­ty sad. But like I said, who knows? I'm pret­ty sure it's going to get brought up at the end of the year.”

In response to the Matthews his and penalty, Cleveland Browns defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah tweeted out this:

How do NFL coaches feel about the new rules?

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin worries about how the rule change will affect the fans. He told reporters, “... [A]s somebody who appreciates the game and understands we're in the sports entertainment business, it is worrisome from the fan perspective. I do worry about what it's like to watch that game at home with penalties being administered at the rate that they were."

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talked with the media about the new rules. He said:

"We've actually done drills out here as far as our tackling, working trying to subconsciously turn away from that type of a splash. It's very difficult. I've seen several that have been called, and they're tough. They really are. They're tough decisions on the referees, and they do impact games."

A tweet by Dov Kleiman shows a clip of exactly how Packers head coach Mike McCarthy feels about the new rule change.

How do the quarterbacks feel about the new rules?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger thinks the penalties might be ruining the entertainment value of football. With regards to the excessive number of flags being thrown, he’s quoted as saying:

"There are sure a lot of them. I can't imagine the fans at home are enjoying it too much."

 

Another comment by Roethlisberger after being the victim of two roughing penalties by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday shows just how confusing the rule change is for everybody:

I don't want to criticize the officiating, especially when you're talking about a penalty that helps the quarterback out. But I was surprised at the first one. The second one I thought was legit. He hit me in the helmet. It was kind of like hearing that loud ring when your helmet gets hit.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco doesn’t seem to like the new rules at all, calling them “soft.”

Flacco recently told reporters:

Listen, this is football, man. We all sign up to get hit. We all sign up [knowing] you might get hurt. It’s a violent sport. It’s meant to be that way.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the man whose injury spawned the rule change in the first place, doesn’t believe the new rule is working. About some of the flags that have been thrown this season, Rodgers said:

They’re trying to think about the process of the game and the safety and stuff, but it’s still a collision sport and those, to me, are not penalties.

 

How do the NFL analysts feel about the new rules?

From the feedback some analysts have given so far during games and on Twitter, it’s obvious they’re not happy with the results.

Former player and current ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jason Witten said on-air that the rule has “gone too far,” even suggesting that the rule went “a little bit to the left wing.”

Here’s his full quote:

They’ve just gone too far with that rule [‘roughing the passer’]. You know, it’s just— And I felt that, I knew they wanted to make it about the health and safety and protect these quarterbacks, but it just seems like we just went a little bit to the left wing on that, you know, with our approach of trying to protect it because, as we said, not only are the players frustrated but the coaches – they don’t know how to coach this. That’s where you have a challenge with this rule.

Other football analysts and experts, many of them former players, have also chimed in on Twitter:

How do the fans feel about the new rules?

Judging by their Twitter response, they can’t understand how players are supposed to follow the new rule.

Famous football fan and comedian Kevin Hart hilariously showed ESPN how he felt about the rule change:

And this fan’s YouTube video of how to properly sack an NFL quarterback (hint: his wife and a pillow is involved) has officially gone viral.

Will the NFL change the rule after this season?

Possibly.

According to an article just published in the Concord Monitor:

A person close to the rules process 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.

No significant changes to the language of the roughing-the-passer rule are expected to be made during the 2018 season.

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

On Thursday, September 27, 2018, the NFL announced publicly that they wouldn’t alter the rule or the enforcement of the rule.

Their statement reads as follows:

The NFL Competition Committee met last night by conference call to discuss the enforcement of roughing the passer rules with a specific emphasis on the use of body weight by a defender. The committee reviewed video of roughing the passer fouls from both this season to date and 2017.

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.

Video feedback will continue to be provided throughout the season to coaches, players and officials illustrating clear example of permissible and impermissible contact on the quarterback.

Some football experts have noted that the phrase ‘clarified techniques that constitute a foul’ indicates that the league has noticed that some roughing penalties have been called that shouldn’t have been and are attempting to make corrections with their referees.

How the NFL responds to all the negative feedback once the 2018 season concludes of course remains to be seen.

But given how in the past the league has been accused of ignoring the dangers and resulting injuries of playing professional football, especially with regards to concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the fact that they’re concerned enough about injuries to adjust the rules should probably be seen as a gigantic step forward.

Final quote by an extremely frustrated Clay Matthews:

“I don’t run the league office. But you’d like to see football be football. Football has hard hits. It’s a physical game. It’s not for the faint of heart. We get after one another. ... It’s going in the wrong direction.”

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