Trailing 13-0 in the second quarter of a home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Matt Ryan had finally moved his team into scoring position. Seeking to put points on the board, Ryan dropped back on 2nd-and-eight, only to be immediately crushed by a blitzing Jason Worilds for an 11-yard loss. The play knocked the Falcons out of field goal range and set up a tricky 3rd and 19. But before Worilds could even orchestrate an appropriate sack-dance, a flag was tossed. Worilds was called for roughing the passer, a play which carries a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down. Ryan would later hit Devin Hester for a 17-yard touchdown to cut the Steelers' lead to 13-7.
The Steelers' sideline was furious. Worilds sack, violent as it was, appeared to be a textbook, legal tackle. James Harrison, who was inactive because of an injury, even managed to approach referee Clete Blakeman to demand an explanation, according to a Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Securing a pivotal 27-20 victory, Pittsburgh refused to comment on the controversial penalty. Mike Tomlin dismissed any questions about the call while Ben Roethlisberger only stated "the official used his best judgement when making the decision." This, however, did not stop other publications from speculating about the nature of the call. The Sporting News, USA Today, and Yahoo! Sports all ran feature stories alluding to the controversial nature of the penalty. Comments sections of these articles were littered with angry Steelers fan wondering how such a call can happen, and noting that Pittsburgh is lucky it didn't cost them the game. Some even advocated for more drastic measures, such as a rule change.
Regardless of opinion about the call, the absolute truth is roughing the passer penalties exist for the sole purpose of protecting the quarterback. The controversial issue about such hits is the fact no concrete rule exists on how to judge such a penalty. When a rule is left entirely up to an officials' interpretations, the results will likely differ on a game-to-game basis.
The hit by Worilds looked clean. It can be argued such a hit was exactly what coaches need to be teaching players. But as Blakeman told Roethlisberger, "I thought his hit was a little high."
Blakeman's explanation, obviously, serves as a lightning rod for criticism for anyone who witnessed the play first-hand. Of course, Blakeman didn't have access to high-definition cameras, slow motion, instant replay, or the luxury of watching the play unfold from his couch at home. He made a quick decision on a bang-bang play, using his judgement as an NFL official. Blakeman has been an NFL official since 2008, and was elected as an alternate referee for the Super Bowl last season, facts which suggest Blakeman displays a high degree of proficiency as an interpreter of league rules. If he thought Worilds hit Ryan a little high, then his opinion should be valued.
Football isn't perfect. Changing the rules for every controversy would be madness. Part of what makes the game so great is the issue of human error. Hours after the conclusion of the Pittsburgh victory, a similar roughing the passer penalty was called against 49ers linebacker Nick Moody, who was flagged for his hit on Seattle's Russell Wilson. Instead of a fourth down, the Seahawks would score a touchdown, ultimately winning the game 17-7. It's awful if the outcome of a game is affected by a poor call, but sometimes that happens. The human element, as much as it can be a burden, can't be entirely washed out from a game.
Another rule change, a move many are advocating, not only could reset everything defensive players had to learn over the last few seasons about the "new" way to tackle, but easing up on some rules could make for a more unsafe environment.
Luckily, the outcome of the game was not affected by Blakeman's call, and the entire Steelers organization seems set on forgiving Blakeman and moving on. Perhaps it's best we all did the same.