The NFL's roughing the passer rule is bulls***. Just ask a retired defensive end – SB Nation


Imagine being penalized, hurting your team, and maybe even getting fined all for just doing your damn job.

Welcome to the world of today’s NFL pass rushers, where having textbook tackling technique on a quarterback is grounds for a flag.

Or worse.

If you have been paying attention, you have probably noticed that the controversy over the new rule change on roughing the passer this season is following what has become a pretty predictable pattern for the NFL. First, the league unilaterally decides to change a rule under the guise of “improving player safety.” Then, when it blows up in their face, they scramble to “fix” something that didn’t need fixing in the first place.

That pattern plays out repeatedly because many of the NFL’s supposed attempts to “improve player safety” appear to be more about PR than anything else. The league has been reactive to serious injuries to their most prominent players, and they institute these rule changes to try to convince fans that they will never let the same thing happen again.

Ask yourself this, if the NFL really cared about player safety, why would they move so quickly to change that lowering the helmet rule during the preseason after players, coaches and fans all complained loudly?

Really sit and try to answer that question for a minute. If the rule had been well researched and planned out by a team of doctors, trainers, physiologists, kinesiologists, and all kinds of other -oligists — along with coaches, players, and everyone who you would think should have a say in a rule change meant to help player safety — and they all had come to the conclusion that this rule would make the game safer for the players, shouldn’t it be a lot harder to change the rule back to something that would presumably be less safe?

And yet that’s exactly what the NFL did with the lowering-helmet-rule change in the preseason.

That rule change was a bullshit reaction to Steeler linebacker Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury on a play where he lowered his head right before contact on a tackle attempt, and not really about player safety to begin with. My prayers are up for Shazier as he continues to recover, but one isolated incident and injury shouldn’t force a rule change, especially one that was as poorly thought out as that lowering-the-helmet rule.

And besides, spearing has been outlawed for a long time already, so if anything the rule already on the books just needed to be enforced more emphatically. But the owners changed the rule this offseason anyway, evidently without much, if any, feedback from the folks who could have told them it was a bad idea. When they finally got to beta test it live in the preseason it was, predictably, a clusterfuck.

The funny thing is that the NFL is so preoccupied with PR over anything else that when they relented and essentially changed the lowering-the-helmet rule back to what it had been, they still insisted in their press release that they weren’t changing the new rule at all.

But hey, that’s how the NFL works their magic. That’s how you get announcers chastising players for not “adjusting” to rule changes even when there is little to no publicly available data that show whether some of these rule changes actually make the game any safer.

And sometimes the rule changes and enforcement are so ridiculous and obvious that even someone who never watched a minute of football can see that something is very wrong. At that point it doesn’t matter how much water the announcers carry for the league, fans are going to want things to go back to normal. It feels like that’s the point we are finally at with the new version of roughing the passer.

The NFL is saying pass rushers have to literally defy the law of physics or get a penalty, which is bullshit.

Think I’m joking? It’s in the rule.

“… the defender is responsible for avoiding landing on the quarterback when taking him to the ground.”

How, Sway?

You ain’t got the answers!

If the NFL had asked any of the many current and former players if the rule change was feasible …

Or any coaches if they could coach a guy not to fall on a quarterback he’s in the middle of tackling …

Or a physicist if it was plausible a player could stop his momentum and change the trajectory of his fall in mid air …

If the NFL had done any of those things, the NFL could have avoided this shitshow altogether by either not changing the rule at all, or doing it in a way that actually subscribed to the laws of physics. But that would have required them actually caring whether or not they got it right the first time. I’m having a hard to believe they do at this point.

All they seem to care about is whether they got the right press coverage for the rule changes off the bat. And now that everybody is throwing a fit, suddenly there are whispers that the owners are going to address the enforcement of the rule soon.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they pretended the changes aren’t really changes again, either.

Now, I understand why some folks might not get why the rule change is such a big deal because they have never rushed a passer before.

Since I have done it a time or two in the NFL, I want to try to explain why the rule change was so absurd.

See, when quarterbacks see a guy coming at them at full speed, straight on, they will generally go limp as soon as they feel contact. Even if they do tense up, they don’t have any momentum in that moment to fight against the hit. That’s why when a defensive player hits a quarterback flush, quarterbacks are rarely able to keep themselves upright, no matter how athletic and or strong they are.

Well, if a guy my size or bigger gets two steps to run into you full bore and you can’t or won’t put up much resistance, what in the hell is supposed to keep him from falling on top of you?

Absolutely nothing, that’s what!

That situation is completely different from tackling a quarterback who is scrambling and can actually brace for the blow or even hand one out himself. You ever push on a door and thought it was a lot heavier that it actually was? Yeah, that’s how it usually feels to get a good hit on a quarterback when he’s still in the pocket. Once you explode into them, there isn’t anything to slow you down before you land on top of them. So unless some coach out there has invented a technique that will allow players to levitate in mid-air, this rule change is simply preposterous.

Now, Clay Matthews isn’t the only guy who has been unfairly penalized by this rule change so far. But his sack — yes, sack — of Alex Smith on Sunday was probably the textbook example of why pass rushers are in a no-win situation if the rule isn’t changed back. I still can’t get over the fact that he was penalized on a play in which the quarterback still had the ball.

But I digress.

Look, the NFL has already implemented rules in the past that prohibit pass rushers from hitting the quarterback low when he’s in the pocket (as was the case in Carson Palmer’s playoff injury and later Tom Brady’s knee injury), and if you hit a quarterback anywhere in the center of the chest area you run the risk of getting dinged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless player. So the NFL has already made it hard as hell not to get a foul when you hit the quarterback.

And to his credit Matthews’ tackling technique was training-tape-perfect in his attempt to avoid a flag. He even moved his head to the side right before he made contact to ensure that his helmet didn’t kiss Smith’s. And instead of picking Smith up and rock bottoming him into the turf, all Matthews did was follow through with the tackle which made him fall on top Smith. He was obviously cognizant on the new rule change because as soon as he and Smith hit the ground together in a heap, Matthews started looking around to make sure he wasn’t flagged.

But he was!


After seeing that play, I just want the people who changed the rule in the first place to have to stand in front of a video of it and try to explain how that rule change helps solve anything. I also want them to be forced to explain, in detail, what Matthews could have done differently on that play. And finally, I would pay good money to see those same decision makers do an actual physical demonstration of what they said Matthews should have done differently. I want them to have to actually feel the sensation of trying to tackle someone without landing on them, and I want that shit broadcast on every streaming service so we can all get a laugh.

I know it will never happen, but I can dream, can’t I?

Now, I will say that players are kind of playing into the NFL’s hands with their rhetoric bashing these new rule changes.

Calling the game “soft” gives a lot of regular people who never played football the impression that current players just want to be able to hurt each other in peace. It also reinforces the narrative that players need the owners to “save them from themselves,” a narrative that exclusively benefits the owners. A lot of “fans” already look at players more like commodities than actual people anyway, so I feel like it doesn’t do anyone any favors for players to keep falling into that trap rhetorically.

It also happens to be inaccurate.

These rule changes aren’t bad because they are making the game “soft.” They are bad because they’re really friggin’ stupid!

Some of them also pretty clearly aren’t making the game any safer, and in fact you can make a pretty compelling case that some of them are making the game more dangerous for defensive players who now, evidently, have to try to be contortionists at full speed or risk getting flagged.

If you don’t believe me ask Dolphins veteran defensive end William Hayes who tried to do like the NFL said and defy the laws of gravity on Sunday and, unfortunately for him, got bit back by gravity. Hayes is now on injured reserve and lost for the season with a major knee injury after he was off to a hot start for a very surprising 3-0 Miami team … all because he tried to abide by a nonsensical rule change.

And for what?

Because Aaron Rodgers got hurt last year?

Come on, man!

But the NFL understands the power of words.

That’s exactly why they repeat over and over the message that they are only making these changes for the sake of their players. Current players could help themselves a lot by dropping the “soft” rhetoric and instead going right at owners’ claims of improving player safety. Challenge the NFL to prove these rule changes are necessary next time before guys have to play under them. Demand that they disclose how they came to formulate and approve these rule changes in the first place. Stress how much all players want to make the game safer, too, but that there needs to be some proof that any of these rules changes actually accomplish that goal before putting them in place.

If it seems like I’m pissed off, you’re fucking right I am! The same NFL that took years to even acknowledge that there might be a link between football and CTE keeps getting over on people by claiming the mantle of “player safety.”

As one of the league’s former players I’m completely over it. If they really cared about player safety they would stop making reactive rule changes and solicit input from the players.

Hopefully the NFL stands down on the new roughing the passer rule, because at the rate we are going there will be 72 more roughing penalties called by the end of this season compared to the last. Nobody wants to see that. Some of these calls have already affected the outcomes of games, at least one player has been hurt, and even some of the quarterbacks who are benefiting from the calls have come out against the rule.

But you know what, even if they do fix yet another mess they created, nobody should forget the Keystone Kops manner in which the NFL slapped together these rule changes this past offseason. And the next time the league claims to be committed to player safety, maybe be a little more skeptical before you buy that hook, line and sinker.

Player safety, huh? *sucks teeth*

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