​Sticking to Sports: Roughing the Passer, Targeting and the Future of Football

by Sam Stockton | 10/1/18 2:15am

The opening weeks of the National Football League season have been dominated by one storyline. It isn’t blossoming young quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff, it isn’t the Browns finally winning a game and it isn’t the slow start by the greatest franchise of the salary cap era. For the early weeks of the NFL season, we have been unable to talk about anything but the suddenly rampant “roughing the passer” flags.

We have this conversation from a variety of viewpoints. There are those who see the new penalization as paramount to improving player safety. Some say these penalties are evidence of the NFL making offense even easier at the expense of defenders. My favorite explanation of the new roughing the passer penalties came from new Monday Night Football color commentator Jason Witten. Witten had the following to say on the matter: “They’ve just gone too far with [roughing the passer calls]. I knew they wanted to make it about the health and safety and protect these quarterbacks. It just seems that we went a little to the left wing on that.”  Witten’s take brings voice to the already far too loud “the NFL is going soft” crowd.

In reality, the logic behind the NFL’s new rule is simple, and it has nothing to do with player safety or — sorry to disappoint you, Jason — the left wing. An increase in roughing the passer penalties stems from a calculated decision from the league about its television product. The NFL fears quarterback injuries, which drive fans away more than anything else. The worst case scenario for the league is airing primetime games featuring the likes of Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush or Tyler Bray. This creates games that are physically difficult to watch and deter fans more than anthem protests or broader fears about player safety because they directly decrease the quality of game play in a way that those external pressures do not. What the NFL wants in primetime is exactly what you saw last Thursday night in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, when the Rams and Vikings went back and forth in an epic quarterback duel between Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins. You saw two dynamic offenses trading scores thanks to their aerial attacks. That is the television product the NFL wants to sell, and the reason they are penalizing even the lightest blows to quarterbacks is because they have identified quarterback safety, specifically the group of quarterbacks capable of the kind of offensive display we saw at the Coliseum on Thursday, as the key to delivering that. There are only so many capable quarterbacks, and the NFL wants to do everything in its power to ensure that they remain on the field.

Now that we’ve been over why this rule has become what we’ve seen in the first few weeks of the season, let’s move on to what it looks like on the field. The poster child for this new rule is Green Bay Packers Linebacker Clay Matthews. Matthews, never known as a dirty player, received a “roughing the passer” flag in each of the season’s first three weeks. Each of the penalties came at a critical juncture in the game, and the Packers won just once. My message to outraged Packers fans is to look inward; the twice-broken collarbone of your newly minted $134 million man is as responsible for this new rule as anything else. 

After the third roughing the passer call on Matthews, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer announced that Matthews was furious and that he had no intention of changing the way he had been taught to rush the passer in light of the new rules, even if this meant retirement. While I do not wholeheartedly agree with the rule (I’ll get to more of my thoughts on it in a moment), I think this is a remarkably short-sighted statement by Matthews. If he doesn’t change anything, he will continue to draw the same flags and hurt his teams, and no amount of angry postgame pressers will make up for those 15-yard losses. Perhaps this was just something Matthews said in the heat of a trying loss, but if he doesn’t make changes to his game, he will hurt his team.

So, my thoughts on the rule? My issue lies in the fact that the NFL, through this rule, is attempting to deceive its viewing public into believing that it feels some kind of genuine concern for on-field player safety. This rule was NOT implemented to increase player safety; it exists to maintain ratings by preserving quarterbacks. Therefore, implementing it under the guise of player safety is, if not a full-on lie, rather backhanded. There has been natural pushback from defensive players like 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, quick to point out that this rule preserves only particular players’ safety. Another major problem with the rule is that it asks the impossible of players. If an NFL defensive lineman is barring down on a quarterback, he can’t reasonably be expected to completely alter his course in the split second after the quarterback releases the football. If the NFL continues to call the rule in this fashion, I would like to see them release videos in which they explain what an offending player should have done instead. If the player had no other recourse and ended up not contacting a player’s head, then I do not understand how this can continue to be a foul. Compare this to the other controversial rule of the early football season — targeting in college football. The targeting rule in college is not new for this season, but feels worthy of a mention in this conversation. It brings me to a highly unusual position — defending the National College Athletic Association. It assesses a 15-yard penalty for contact above the shoulder. It doesn’t matter what the hitter’s intent was; if he makes head contact, it is not only a penalty but an ejection. That is player safety, drawing a hard line against hits to the head, whether intentional or not, and enforcing harsh consequences for offenders. In this way, “targeting” seems a bit of a misnomer, as it implies that intent is necessary, but the effect will be positive for player safety. As painful as it is to see a star player ejected in a big game, with rules like this, the NCAA will drive these sorts of concussion-inducing hits out of the game in a way that the NFL’s rule won’t. These are the sorts of firm stands we need to see as we struggle to determine the future of football in the age of CTE.