Amy Lawrence: Roughing The Passer Penalties Watering Down NFL Product

No matter how many flags officials throw, quarterbacks will still get hurt – and it's time for the NFL to "level the playing field"

After Hours with Amy Lawrence
October 30, 2018 - 6:15 am

USA Today Images

Not even a month into the season, the NFL is in desperate need of a course correction.

Instead of gushing over flashy young quarterbacks or gawking over the Bills' massive upset in Minnesota or wondering how critical injuries might affect the NFC West, the football world is focused on yellow laundry...specifically, roughing the passer penalties. They're impossible to avoid. Through three weeks, the number of flags thrown against defensive players for roughing the quarterbacks is more than double what it was a year ago at this point (34 to 16). They're also up significantly from 2016 (20 through Week 3).

High-profile defensive players like Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews are calling the league "soft," and Dolphins coach Adam Gase blames the torn ACL of defensive end William Hayes on the rules that stress QB protection. Gase says Hayes injured his knee as he sidestepped to prevent all of his body weight landing on Derek Carr. He planted his foot unnaturally, and it got caught in the turf. 

Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner says the huge offensive numbers we see every week are a product of inequity. "I LOVE offense but better when it's a fair fight!" He's not the only one using his platform to jump into the fray. Super Bowl winner Trent Dilfer sums it up this way: "So you can’t tackle QBs from thighs down, chest up, land on them or touch their head. Am I missing anything?" And 12-year NFL veteran Dan Orlovsky jokes that QBs should "just stand there and get hit. You’ll go down the field off penalties..."

The rule sparking all the controversy isn't actually new. On the books going back to 1995, it prohibits defenders from throwing all their weight into a hit or sack of a quarterback. The rusher "must be making an attempt to avoid contact and must not continue to 'drive through' or otherwise forcibly contact the passer; incidental or inadvertent contact by a player who is easing up or being blocked into the passer will not be considered significant.” What's new this fall is the league making the rule a major point of emphasis for officials across the board. The overarching goal is to protect the NFL's most precious commodity as much as possible. Quarterbacks bring more eyes and ears to the sport. More than any other position on the field, we fans obsess over QBs, for better or worse. From the established vets to the exciting wave of up-and-comers, they become household names, the faces of their franchises, and the league's most marketable figures. When a megawatt star like Aaron Rodgers is hurt, the whole sport suffers. It makes sense that some rules are designed to protect them. But the added emphasis is creating an unfair advantage for offenses.

Here's hoping the irony of Week 3 isn't lost on the league. The first starting quarterback to be lost for the season was the victim of a NON-CONTACT injury. Jimmy Garoppolo of the Niners tore his ACL when he planted awkwardly on his left foot while trying to extend a play on the run. No one touched him, and he's still done for the year. The moral of the story: it's impossible to protect quarterbacks from any and all injuries! Not even encasing them in bubble wrap or putting them in red jerseys and confining them to restricted areas will work. They risk injury every time they step on the field for games, practices, and walk-throughs. No matter how much the league tweaks the rules, the violence of the game and its physical toll will result in QBs getting hurt. It would be awesome if none of our favorite players were ever sidelined with injuries, but that's not reality, and it's also not the end of the world. When MVP candidate Carson Wentz tore his ACL last winter, Nick Foles stepped in to help lead the Eagles to their first Super Bowl win. As much as it stinks to see players go down, injuries also lead to opportunities, and sometimes, incredible moments that we never expected.

The good news is that the NFL hates a flood of bad publicity even more than it hates injured superstars. The commissioner's office and team owners tend to steer their ship in response to criticism. Remember how the league only addressed its domestic violence and national anthem policies after controversy created backlash in both cases? The NFL takes action when uproar from coaches, players, and fans threatens to dwarf the action between the white lines. It comes as no surprise that the Competition Committee will soon hold a conference call to talk about the rise in roughing the passer penalties. With so many of the flags coming in critical moments on national broadcasts and with the endless debate on sports radio and TV, the league wants to reduce the negative attention. It's reminiscent of the debacle with replacement referees at the beginning of the 2012 season. Monday Night Football in Seattle, the final play of the final game of Week 3: one official ruled an interception by Packers safety M.D. Jenning as another signaled touchdown by Seahawks receiver Golden Tate. Mass confusion ensued. The sports world exploded. Not so coincidentally, it was the last we saw of replacement refs. The NFL settled its dispute with officials and ended their lockout within days. They were back at work for Week 4.

The NFL isn't blind or deaf. The body of evidence is mounting, and the chorus of condemnation is steadily growing louder. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners need to forget a utopia where quarterbacks never get hurt. It's an impossible ideal. Time to tip the scales back in the other direction. The league has reminded teams that unnecessary roughness and body-slamming QBs in the style of the WWE won't be tolerated. Officials should definitely be on the lookout for blows to the head, neck, and shoulders of its quarterbacks. Gratuitous, avoidable, malicious hits where a defender launches off his feet or runs through a QB should absolutely be outlawed. But taking textbook tackles and turning them into penalties is ridiculous. That doesn't make the game safer. Instead, it waters down the product and gives offenses the upper hand.

Time to level the playing field, NFL. Time for a course correction…stat

 

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, cbssportsradio.com and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.