The NFL’s roughing the passer rules aren’t just flawed — they’re flawed by design

·2 min read

We know that the NFL told its officials before the 2021 season to place special emphasis on roughing the passer penalties this season, and that has played out through the first five weeks of the season. Per NFLPenalties.com, there were 127 called roughing the passer penalties in the entire 2020 season; there were 48 through the first five weeks of the 2021 season. Many of those calls have been ticky-tack at best, but when you tell a group of officials to play special attention to the points of emphasis of a penalty, that’s what you’re going to get.

With 10:09 left in the Cardinals-Browns game, Cleveland defensive lineman Malik Jackson was called for roughing the passer on a play where offensive lineman Max Garcia actually pushed Jackson into quarterback Kyler Murray, and Jackson did virtually nothing to Murray when he arrived at the quarterback.

Jackson pushed Murray in the back, but it could just as easily be argued that Jackson was pushing off to avoid sending Murray to the ground. Either way, there’s no indication that Jackson actually roughed the passer based on the NFL’s rules.

From Rule 12, Article 11 of the NFL Rulebook, here are all the possible ways in which roughing the passer can and should be called:

Because the act of passing often puts the quarterback (or any other player attempting a pass) in a position where he is particularly vulnerable to injury, special rules against roughing the passer apply. The Referee has principal responsibility for enforcing these rules. Any physical acts against a player who is in a passing posture (i.e. before, during, or after a pass) which, in the Referee’s judgment, are unwarranted by the circumstances of the play will be called as fouls. The Referee will be guided by the following principles:

(a) Roughing will be called if, in the Referee’s judgment, a pass rusher clearly should have known that the ball had already left the passer’s hand before contact was made; pass rushers are responsible for being aware of the position of the ball in passing situations; the Referee will use the release of the ball from the passer’s hand as his guideline that the passer is now fully protected; once a pass has been released by a passer, a rushing defender may make direct contact with the passer only up through the rusher’s first step after such release (prior to second step hitting the ground); thereafter 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.

(b) A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as “stuffing” a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball, even if the rusher makes his initial contact with the passer within the one-step limitation provided for in (a) above. When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to fall to the side of the quarterback’s body, or to brace his fall with his arms to avoid landing on the quarterback with all or most of his body weight.

(c) In covering the passer position, Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area (see also the other unnecessary roughness rules covering these subjects). A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture—for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer’s head or neck area with the helmet or facemask, even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the passer’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him; or (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with any part of the helmet against any part of the passer’s body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer.

(d) A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee. It is not a foul if the defender is blocked (or fouled) into the passer and has no opportunity to avoid him.

Notes: (1) A defender cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player.

(2) It is not a foul if the defender swipes or grabs a passer in the knee area or below in an attempt to tackle him, provided he does not make forcible contact with the helmet, shoulder, chest, or forearm.

(e) A passer who is standing still or fading backward after the ball has left his hand is obviously out of the play and must not be unnecessarily contacted by an opponent through the end of the down or until the passer becomes a blocker, or a runner, or, in the event of a change of possession during the down, until he assumes a distinctly defensive position.

However, at any time after the change of possession, it is a foul if:

(1) an opponent forcibly hits the quarterback’s head or neck area with his helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder

(2) if an opponent lowers his head and makes forcible contact with any part of his helmet against any part of the passer’s body. This provision does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or the helmet in the course of a conventional block.

Jackson did none of these things. But if you walk a bit further down in the rulebook, you see this:

Notes: (1) When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the passer, the Referee should always call roughing the passer.

So basically, officials can call roughing the passer whenever they want under any circumstances, even if the circumstances do not dictate the penalty, and it is in the rulebooks as such. The NFL has more than enough scandals to deal with right now, but this is absolutely unconscionable. It’s either a rule, or it isn’t. Telling officials that it’s perfectly fine to call roughing the passer whether it happened or not is a violation of the rights of every defensive player, and this “note” should be eliminated as quickly as possible.

It’s too late for Malik Jackson, and all the other defensive players who were unfairly penalized, but it has to stop now.

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