Remember during the spring, summer and NFL preseason, when you were raging over the league’s new rule (or was it a new emphasis — hard to keep track of these things) to protect the health of its players?
Turns out, you were right to be enraged, only you were angry about the wrong rule.
While the NFL’s new rules on targeting and helmet-to-helmet hits stole the headlines before the start of the 2018 regular season, it’s the league’s newer and sexier roughing-the-passer rule (or emphasis) that has stolen the show so far.
Can you remember the last time a player was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit? I know there have been some, but it doesn’t seem to be altering games or keeping drives alive at an alarming rate through the early portions of the 2018 season. And maybe that’s because you can fundamentally teach players on both offense and defense to block and tackle without using their heads as battering rams. Sure, there have been some bang-bang non-calls, but those are going to happen. Perhaps to the credit of the officials, they’ve mostly used common sense in situations where helmet-to-helmet contact is simply impossible to avoid.
But you can’t give the officials any credit for how they’ve been emphasizing quarterback safety by throwing roughing-the-passer flags at an alarming rate that appears to be zooming on the way to being absolutely ridiculous. Through three full weeks, 34 roughing the passer penalties have been called, up by 18 from the same time-frame in 2017.
The quirk in this new emphasis isn’t necessarily the amount of penalties that have been called, but why.
Remember the good old days, when defenders were only flagged for things like shots to the head or hitting the quarterback after taking a two- or three-step running start? Much like the helmet-to-helmet hits, a defender could cut down on such fouls simply by using proper technique and a little restraint.
But I’m at a loss at what to say about this new emphasis on roughing the passer in 2018, when it’s now illegal for a defender to land on a quarterback with all of his body weight. How is that really possible in most cases? How can you tell a defender to use proper tackling technique on a ball-carrier (bend at the knees, see what you hit, and drive the ball-carrier to the ground), but then turn around and tell him he must take a different approach when hitting a quarterback?
What is a defender supposed to do? If he’s not using proper technique, he must either sling a passer to the ground or take him down with a semi-clothesline, a la pro wrestling.
In the Steelers’ 30-27 victory over the Buccaneers in Week 3, four roughing the passer penalties were called — two on both teams — with perhaps the silliest one going against safety Sean Davis, who weighs 20 pounds less than Tampa Bay quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
So now, if you’re a defender, you can’t hit a quarterback high, hit a quarterback low or tackle a quarterback to the turf like a regular football player.
Prior to Week 4’s matchups, the NFL doubled-down on its new emphasis on protecting the quarterback, which is cute for now. But wait until a Jesse James-like play alters not only the course of a drive or game, but changes the fortunes of some aspiring playoff team.
Much like the Catch Rule and many other irrational league mandates, you can almost guarantee the NFL ultimately will de-emphasize its current stance on roughing the passer.
It’s just too bad that will happen next spring.
In the meantime, brace yourself and hope it’s not your team whose playoff aspirations are de-emphasized in 2018.