Packers: We need to talk about these roughing the passer penalties

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 23: Clay Matthews #52 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after being called for a penalty in the third quarter against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 23, 2018 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 23: Clay Matthews #52 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after being called for a penalty in the third quarter against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 23, 2018 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

Let me preface my article by saying the officiating is not the reason why the Green Bay Packers lost to the Redskins.

Inconsistency and unreliability from both the offense and the defense is why the Packers lost. However, two weeks in a row the new NFL rule that is designed to protect quarterbacks has ended up going against Clay Matthews in big moments.

The new rule for for roughing the passer cost the Packers a victory last week, and it reared its ugly head again in Week 3.

Now I think all football fans agree in some form or fashion that the new rule regarding a defender “driving their bodyweight” into the quarterback  is bad. I’ll delve into the specifics of what has made this new rule a major issue.

I believe that there are two main issues with this rule and how it is being implemented:

  1. The fact that what was a common football play in the past now constitutes a penalty
  2. Inconsistency in calling this penalty from the referees

Starting out with my first issue, the idea of penalizing a defender for purposely driving their bodyweight into a quarterback seems downright preposterous when you take a step back and think about it.

For decades that has been what constitutes a tackle: a defender using their body to hit the quarterback, wrap him up, and bring him to the ground.

That’s what a tackle is, plain and simple. Now, the NFL has obviously emphasized player safety as time has gone on, which has led to plays from the 60s, 70s, and 80s to become penalties in the 2000s.

However, the change in the rule book from last season to this one seems far more abrupt than any other year in recent memory. Illegal hits being called as penalties has become more common from year to year, but I think this has risen exponentially between 2017 and 2018.

What has made me most upset as a fan of the Packers, but more importantly as a fan of football, has been that the NFL has doubled down on this rule.

Last week when Packers fans were in an uproar over the late-game penalty against Clay Matthews, the NFL did not say the game officials made a mistake. They did not say they would look at Matthews’ hit on Kirk Cousins as a grey area and something to think about when possibly fixing this new rule.

No, the NFL said that Matthews’ hit on Kirk Cousins in Week 2 was a picture-perfect example of what NOT TO DO.

According to the NFL, it was a prime example of a roughing the passer penalty. In my opinion, that’s absolutely ridiculous. That was a natural football play, and Cousins’ pass likely would not have gotten intercepted if Clay Matthews did not act exactly as he did.

Cousins overthrew the pass which ended up in the arms of Jaire Alexander because he was expecting to get hit by Matthews. That’s a natural football play, and I don’t think it should be the benchmark for a penalty going forward.

So that’s the first part of my argument: that the implementation of the rule penalizes what fans and players have viewed as normal, non-aggressive plays.

Now onto the second part of my issue with the rule, which we saw Sunday: the NFL has been ineffectively and unreliably calling this penalty.

What stands out most to me is two different plays in Sunday’s game. One was called a penalty against Clay Matthews and the other had no flag on the play.

Matthews pressured Alex Smith by getting off a block, and bull-rushing right towards him. In order to get off the block, Matthews needed to sprint away from the lineman. The action of sprinting away from the opposition is not a penalty as far as I am aware.

Because of the fact that Matthews was running full-speed towards the quarterback, he hit him with a fair amount of force. That’s just football. Now the penalty called against Matthews was in reference to him landing on the quarterback with all of his bodyweight.

As Matthews smartly pointed out in his post-game interview: “Obviously when you’re tackling a guy from the front you’re going to land on him”.

That’s entirely true. What else could Matthews have done differently in this situation? He was running at the quarterback and tackled him, so he ended up landing on him. I honestly do not know what he could have done differently to still get the sack.

Is the NFL trying to set the precedent that you cannot tackle a quarterback from the front? Because if so, they are succeeding in getting across this absurd message.

Let’s move on to the play that I mentioned was not called as a penalty. In the second half, Aaron Rodgers got hit hard and sacked by Daron Payne.

According to the letter of the law, this play should have been a penalty against Payne. I’m not just saying this as a fan of the Packers. Payne lifts Rodgers off the ground; that is a fact. He then throws Rodgers on the ground and lands on top of him. That is a fact as well.

So where’s the flag? It never came out.

I think one reason why there was no flag on this play is because the referees have a tough time implementing this rule that seemingly penalizes players for benign and nonviolent actions. In my opinion, I think the play by Payne was more of a foul than the one against Matthews, but what I really want is to go back to the NFL where neither of those are penalties.

But it doesn’t matter what I want, or what you want, or what anyone outside of the league offices wants. Because when push comes to shove, fans are still going to watch the games, buy the merchandise, and follow their team’s every move.

But I hope that at least some of the higher-ups in the NFL have noticed that what is happening the game is bad.

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Because if a change isn’t made, and these ‘penalties’ that haven’t existed until 2018 continue to be called, then we–NFL fans– are in for a rude awakening when the sport we’ve come to know and love devolves into an unenjoyable game where something as common as a quarterback sack is taboo.