Monday night’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should have been notable only for excitement and competitiveness. The Buccaneers, led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, rallied from a twenty point deficit, falling just short in a 30-27 Pittsburgh win. But the game had long since been derailed by the NFL’s new roughing the passer rule. When Tampa Bay’s Jason Pierre-Paul lightly tapped quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the head, Roethlisberger hurled himself down to the ground with a Neymar-worthy flop, a symbol of all that has gone wrong with the league this season. The uproar that followed drowned out any conversation about the game’s result. The NFL needs to fix itself and undo its previous mistakes, or the entire year could similarly go off the rails.
Before the season, the NFL made it a “point of emphasis” for referees to enforce a rule that states defenders cannot land on the quarterback with their full body weight. The Competition Committee planned to have the Officiating Department “emphasize that the defender is responsible to avoid landing on the quarterback when taking him to the ground.” The problem? Try running at an object, tackling it, then not landing on it with any body weight. It’s almost impossible, and it’s certainly not a reasonable expectation.
The rule has already had a major impact on the season. Clay Matthews was unfairly penalized for roughing the passer twice in two weeks. The first penalty played a big role in what became a tie between Green Bay and Minnesota, costing the Packers the win. The second was an even more egregious call. Matthews sacked Alex Smith while trying desperately to shift his body weight and not land on the quarterback. His effort was met with yet another 15-yard penalty. What happens when a major playoff game is won or lost due to this rule? What if it loses a team the Super Bowl?
Players have spoken out against the rule. Houston Texans’ defensive end J.J. Watt tweeted that “Roughing the Passer calls are absolutely out of control.” The 49ers’ cornerback Richard Sherman, in response to a tweet that said “(what) happened to the league we all love,” added simply, “Wish I knew.”
The rule has also been the direct cause of one serious injury already. Miami’s William Hayes tore his ACL while trying to avoid landing on the Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr. Instead, he awkwardly contorted himself, twisting his limbs, and is now out for the season. A rule designed to protect against injuries led to one. It clearly doesn’t work as intended. “I wish the guy would have just landed on me instead of tearing his ACL,” Carr later said.
All the roughing the passer penalties significantly drag down the value of a defensive line. What’s the point of getting to the quarterback if you’re not allowed to touch him? The very nature of the game is different. If the rule does not change, quarterbacks should flop whenever a defensive player stands in their vicinity to draw a call. Far more troubling, why wouldn’t a pass rusher choose to disregard the rules completely and destroy a quarterback with a vicious, dangerous hit, if it carries the same penalty as merely tapping them on the helmet?
The Competition Committee met Wednesday night on a conference call to discuss all the roughing the passer penalties. But I’m not overly optimistic about what came out of that meeting. NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent announced that “the committee determined there would be no changes to the point of emphasis approved this spring or to the rule.” With that in mind, I find it likely that problems with the rule will continue until next offseason (albeit not at the current rate), when the NFL can quietly correct its mistakes and not have to admit defeat.
The problems we have seen this season are indicative of the current crisis facing the NFL. How exactly do you make an incredibly violent game like football safer in the first place? But here, the NFL has prioritized the safety of quarterbacks over the safety of everyone else. There is nothing safe about a huge defensive player twisting and turning himself in unnatural motions to avoid a normal tackle.
If the NFL really wants to make sacks safe, they should put flags on quarterbacks and have it done flag-football style. At least that way, a completely changed game would be safer in reality. Instead, we’re stuck with a version of football that’s less fun to watch and as dangerous as ever. Let’s hope the NFL makes the right decision before this season is lost.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.