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The NFL’s Sudden Roughing-the-Passer Obsession Isn’t About Safety

Never let it be said that conjunctions aren’t important, because one in the rule book is apparently ruining football

AP Images/Ringer illustration

We can call the NFL’s new, awful emphasis on a particular brand of roughing-the-passer penalty the State Farm Rule. It was instituted to prevent injuries like the one that took out the Packers’ insurance-hawking quarterback, Aaron Rodgers; it has most famously penalized Rodgers’s Green Bay teammate and advertising costar, linebacker Clay Matthews.

Last October, Rodgers broke his collarbone when he was hit by Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. Barr’s hit seemed borderline malicious: He was late, leaping into Rodgers after the quarterback had released a pass, and he appeared to gather strength to drive Rodgers awkwardly into the ground, landing with full force squarely on the QB’s shoulder. However, Barr’s hit was not illegal. While the 2017 NFL rule book specified that “a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw [the quarterback] down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight,” Barr didn’t do that. He clearly landed on Rodgers with all or most of his body weight, but it’s hard to say that he “unnecessarily or violently threw [Rodgers] down.”

In response, the league changed a single word in its rule book this offseason. Instead of prohibiting defenders from throwing a QB down and landing on him, the rule now states that defenders will be penalized if they throw a quarterback down or land on him. Never let it be said that conjunctions aren’t important, because this one is apparently ruining football.

Starting with the first game of this season, officials have penalized defenders for landing on top of quarterbacks—even if a hit exemplified every safety guideline that tacklers are taught. Here is Matthews’s third roughing-the-passer penalty of the 2018 campaign, from last Sunday’s game against Washington:

Matthews does everything right while sacking Alex Smith: He keeps his head up instead of leading with his helmet; he hits Smith in the midsection rather than the helmet or legs; and he doesn’t exert additional force beyond what is needed to bring Smith to the ground. As soon as Smith goes down, Matthews tries to shift his weight off the quarterback, as not to exacerbate potential injury. By the letter of the law, though, Matthews landed on Smith with his body weight. After being called for only four roughing-the-passer penalties during his first nine years in the league, Matthews has been called for three this season, including one that essentially cost Green Bay a win in Week 2 against the Vikings.

The amount of roughing penalties in the league has more than doubled so far this fall. Last year, there were 16 through three weeks of the season; this year, there have been 33. Monday night’s matchup between the Steelers and Buccaneers was the first in NFL history in which both teams were flagged for multiple roughing-the-passer penalties.

It’s unclear how defenders are supposed to abide by this new rule. As they bring a QB down, they ostensibly have to start levitating mid-tackle, which is impossible since the league’s rule book also bans the use of magic wands. (We think.) This is a problem for NFL players, but great news for the sports parody video industry.

I recommend defenders put their opponents to sleep using a lullaby. Hey, it works for Jigglypuff.

This rule change designed to enhance player safety has had a dangerous side effect. On Sunday, Dolphins defensive end William Hayes tore his ACL in an apparent attempt to avoid landing on top of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr:

“He was trying to not put body weight on the quarterback,” Miami head coach Adam Gase said of the injury. Analyzing the video, it’s tough to see how Hayes’s leg flail would have prevented him from landing on Carr with most of his body weight. But you can sort of track Hayes’s thought process. He gets to Carr and begins to tackle him, as he has been trained to do for his entire football life. After getting his arms on the QB, he remembers that the method of sacking the opponent he has practiced time and again is no longer deemed legal. Hayes knows he has to do something—anything—to make this sack different. So he swings his leg out wide, and it slams into the ground in a way that legs aren’t supposed to slam.

On Monday Night Football, ESPN’s Jason Witten said that the NFL’s rise in roughing-the-passer penalties is an example of football succumbing to “left-wing” influences. So I’d like to make something clear: I’m, like, socialist, and I think this rule change freaking sucks.

The NFL’s rules against roughing the passer exist for the same reason as its rules against roughing the kicker or, yes, roughing the long snapper. While other positions on the field routinely expect or seek out contact, passers, kickers, and snappers regularly contort their bodies into unnatural positions to perform specific tasks that put them at risk.

But while rules against roughing the kicker and snapper have basically eliminated all contact against kickers and snappers, it’s impossible to eliminate all contact against quarterbacks. It is the most integral position in football, and contact against it is crucial to the game. Every no. 1 NFL draft pick since 1997 has been used on a quarterback, defensive end (the guy whose main job is to tackle the quarterback), or offensive tackle (the guy whose main job is to stop the defensive end from getting to the QB). That’s 22 straight no. 1 picks dedicated to the passer or the battle to take him down. It’s the most pivotal struggle in football, and also the most valuable.

And it’s not just valuable from a football perspective. It’s valuable from a monetary one too. We don’t get posters, jerseys, or tattoos of kickers or long snappers. We don’t name pets or children after them. In many cases, quarterbacks aren’t just players—they’re the faces of franchises. They’re national celebrities featured in State Farm ads. Teams invest heavily in them, and when a great QB gets hurt, everything changes. Rodgers’s 2017 injury probably cost the Packers millions of dollars, as it essentially kept them out of the playoffs. It also cost the league money: The Packers are one of the most watched teams in the NFL, but there was less incentive to watch them without Rodgers. Ratings went down; fewer things were sold.

So while the rules against roughing kickers and snappers have stayed mostly the same over the years, the rules about protecting quarterbacks have changed dramatically. There hasn’t been a rash of quarterback collarbone injuries, but as soon as one highly valuable QB suffered one, the league jumped to outlaw hits that could cause future quarterback collarbone injuries. The idea is no longer to solely protect passers in the instant or two when their bodies are most vulnerable; the NFL, by design, is trying to establish a quarterback-specific method of tackling.

And beyond what happened to Hayes, it seems like this rule change could have another unintended consequence. It was put in place to prevent one type of injury, and may lead to more of other types of injuries. The most devastating quarterback hits are the ones that take place around the legs, because the knee is a trash joint, and surprise twists and tweaks of it can keep players out for entire seasons. And the league really needs to crack down on hits to the head, because the brain is the most amazing piece of technology that exists—well, maybe no. 2 behind that camera inside the goal-line pylon—and hits to football players’ heads can harm the brain and ruin their post-football lives. Because of this, the NFL has banned hits to quarterbacks’ heads and legs. Now, it is also telling defenders that some hits in between a QB’s head and his legs are illegal. I fear this attempt to curb mildly dangerous hits to players’ midsections will lead to an increase in significantly more dangerous hits to players’ upper and lower bodies.

In installing this rule change, the league has not only weakened its on-field product; it’s also run the risk of creating a much larger problem. As society has come to understand just how unsafe football is, the NFL has clung to the stance that the most dangerous parts of the game are extraneous and can be fixed. It introduces new helmets, for instance, and claims that the sport’s core issues have been solved. By pointing out that run-of-the-mill hits on quarterbacks are dangerous, however, the NFL has given up its jig. It is tacitly acknowledging that even the most basic and fundamentally sound hits are unsafe.

I don’t think the roughing-the-passer rule changes are about safety. They remind me more of the other type of football safety—the one in which an offense screws up so badly that the opposing team gets two points and is awarded possession of the ball. In an effort to save a couple of million dollars by preventing one type of injury among star quarterbacks, the league is highlighting the fact its mega-billion-dollar enterprise is built on an unfixable problem; that all football tackles are, to some extent, dangerous.

The most common quip I’ve heard from fans and commentators about the new rule is: Well, if that’s illegal, they should just put flags on the players. This might be intended as a joke, but honestly there’s a pretty good argument for eliminating tackle football altogether. This sport that we love has killed and paralyzed players. No matter how many changes are made to the game, no matter how well form tackling is taught, the sport will always be violent and dangerous. For the first time, the NFL seems to agree.