Is NFL's New Roughing-the-Passer Rule Forcing Refs to Play Favorites?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 9, 2018

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) is sacked for a 7-yard loss by Tennessee Titans defensive back Logan Ryan in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

When it comes to roughing-the-passer penalties, it's become clear through five weeks of NFL season that all passers—and all roughers—will not be treated equally.     

Take the Patriots. Considering the national furor over this suddenly ubiquitous penalty, it might surprise you to learn that the league's highest-profile team hasn't been called for roughing the passer all season. It'd be especially surprising if you remember watching Patrick Chung and Trey Flowers do this to Andrew Luck on Thursday:

The Action Network @ActionNetworkHQ

"You can't land with your full body weight on the Quarterback" https://t.co/8QX4Twtn1H

It sure looks like they take Luck to the turf with all their body weight there. But no call, so Chung must have only landed with 49 percent of his body weight on Luck, and Flowers landed on Chung landing on Luck, rendering his weight somehow unimportant.

That, or, you know, the Patriots got a call at home. And under the ever-changing new guidelines, reputations are making a big difference as to who gets a call and who doesn't.

No, this isn't some shadow policy prompted by a top-secret leaguewide memo. ("Attn refs: protect big names at all costs; everyone else can cut bait. —Rog"). It's the inevitable result of creating subjective, unenforceable rules and then letting human nature take over.

The current roughing-the-passer rules are so arbitrary that nearly any hit on a quarterback can be flagged, given the right justification/rationalization.

When trying to determine whether a defender intentionally or unintentionally landed with most or only some of his body weight on a quarterback, preconceptions, perceptions and reputations are bound to take over.

Veteran star quarterbacks are bound to get more protection than young quarterbacks, pocket passers more than scramblers. And well-known or well-regarded defenders get more benefit of the doubt than youngsters or perceived "troublemakers."

Tom Brady drew a foul in the same game as the Luck two-man body slam, when Najee Goode's hand slapped his helmet after Goode failed to swat down a pass. So we know that even an unintentional helmet slap is a clear roughing-the-passer violation—except when it happens to a younger, less-celebrated quarterback like Carson Wentz.

Tennessee Titans @Titans

Bend, baby! Bend! #TitanUp @HaroldLandry with the strip sack. 😎 https://t.co/lfDQMHhCDH

Kirk Cousins has been "roughed" three times this season. Two of the fouls would barely merit a lifeguard's whistle for horseplay in a kiddie pool. Clay Matthews hit Cousins with a textbook tackle in Week 2, but the NFL rewrote the textbook to turn it into a penalty. On Sunday, Michael Bennett had the temerity to place his arms around Cousins' lower ankles, something referees suddenly decided to crack down upon this week.

The Vikings could easily be 1-4 if not for those penalties. But maybe you can't fault the NFL for protecting Cousins, a top-salary quarterback with limited ability to protect himself by scrambling.

Deshaun Watson doesn't have that excuse. Maybe that's why he hasn't drawn a single roughing-the-passer penalty this year, even though he's been sacked 18 times behind a crummy line and spent most of Sunday night getting pulverized by Cowboys defenders. Two Cowboys defenders ran Watson over like a steamroller after a throw late in the fourth quarter. They must just have missed all 206 strike points (any human bone) that now merit a flag.

Watson's Sunday night counterpart, Dak Prescott, has been officially "roughed" just once this season (the one refs did whistle not even being a good call) while constantly running for his life. J.J. Watt flattened Prescott on Sunday in the third quarter with a hit that made Matthews' shot on Cousins look like a slow dance at a 50th wedding anniversary. But who wants to ruin Watt's comeback story?

Watt's little brother, T.J., on the other hand, can still get flagged for giving Matt Ryan an ankle massage in the Falcons-Steelers game, because T.J. isn't a superstar (by reputation) yet, and Ryan, like Cousins, is part of a protected species.

360°FantasyFootball @360FFB

WARNING: Gruesome roughing the passer tackle by T.J Watt 👀 https://t.co/qGnN2cIEGs

The league's four rookie starting quarterbacks have combined to draw just three total roughing-the-passer penalties: two for Baker Mayfield, one for Josh Rosen, none for Sam Darnold or Josh Allen, who have been sacked a combined 30 times.

There have been plenty of borderline hits on Rosen and Allen in a season in which just about every hit on a quarterback is "borderline" in some way. But if a defender lands on a rookie quarterback, hits him after the ball is released, rips him down by the scruff of the jersey, well, the rookie held on to the football for too long.

On the other side of the equation, the Rams have been flagged just once for roughing the passer, when Aaron Donald hit Derek Carr in the knee with his helmet in the first quarter of their first game of the season. The Jaguars recorded their first roughing penalty when Malik Jackson shoved Patrick Mahomes to the ground two long strides after the throw on Sunday. Von Miller and the Broncos have not been flagged for roughing the passer this season, nor have Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the Texans, or Khalil Mack and the Bears.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals, Raiders and Seahawks have each incurred three roughing-the-passer penalties. The Packers lead the league with five because refs began following Matthews home to catch him failing to come to a complete stop at intersections.

Kevin Boilard @247KevinBoilard

#Packers LB Clay Matthews appeared to catch himself with his left arm while taking down #Vikings QB Kirk Cousins on this play, but was still called for roughing the passer https://t.co/5u4nYcQg7G

Maybe the counterargument is that the Patriots, Jaguars, Rams and Texans are so well-coached that they can generate a vicious pass rush while only getting flagged in the most extreme circumstances, while defenders on weaker teams are simply more mistake-prone.

Or just maybe, there's a major halo effect at work, with defenses and defenders with stellar reputations getting more leeway.

Watch a few dozen sacks, knockdowns, penalties and non-calls, and it becomes clear that there's a little of both in play. Most roughing calls aren't fishy in any way. But roughing-the-passer penalties are still relatively rare and have a major impact on games, so all it takes is a handful of examples of preferential treatment to create an alarming trend.

Ryan Fitzpatrick drew five roughing fouls in three-and-a-half starts for the Buccaneers. Two of them came on back-to-back plays in the season opener: an arbitrary body-weight foul on David Onyemata, followed by Marcus Davenport delivering a clean hit 0.1 nanoseconds after Fitzgerald released the football. Onyemata later bumped helmets with Fitzpatrick after a throw, and you better believe that was flagged. Lovable veteran scamp from Harvard 3, rando journeyman and raw rookie 0.

Fitzpatrick drew two more flags during the Week 3 Monday night roughing-the-passer spree against the Steelers, when the refs went bonkers and started throwing flags when shadows collided.

The roughing rules have varied from week to week and officiating crew to officiating crew all season, creating an even more fertile breeding ground for bias. When the ground is always shifting beneath your feet, you go with what you know: Familiar guys get the benefit of the doubt, guys named Onyemata do not.

While Fitzpatrick enjoyed untouchability status until he was benched, Russell Wilson has drawn just one flag, Cam Newton two. Like Watson, those "athletic quarterbacks" can take care of themselves, dontcha know. And yeah, there's subtext at work, which is another inevitable result of making rules that are so vague preconceptions have to take over.

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 30:  Defensive end Chandler Jones #55 of the Arizona Cardinals sacks quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter at State Farm Stadium on September 30, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Ralp
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

This is all anecdotal evidence, of course. We only have five weeks of data to work with, with so many weekly clarifications and adjustments to the rules that it's impossible to conclusively prove that some players are getting special treatment while others get the shaft. And it's not like the refs are going out of their way to play favorites: No one is going to let Aaron Donald rip C.J. Beathard's face off because one is marketable and the other isn't.

It's also impossible to take the human element out of officiating. No matter how airtight and logical the roughing rules are made, Tom Brady is going to get more protection than Josh Allen.

But the current chaos threatens to allow human error to overshadow common sense. We've already seen games decided or severely impacted by borderline roughing-the-passer calls. We're seeing exciting young quarterbacks endure hits while veterans turn cheesy flags into touchdowns.

Young defenders are going to endure fines and lose playing time while defenders getting away with the same hits will grow bolder and bolder until they really hurt someone.

The chaos does not encourage safety. It won't even improve play or television ratings if young stars like Watson don't get equal protection under the rules.

The NFL needs to fix the problem, because unclear and unrealistic rules are inherently unfair.

Unfortunately, "unclear and unrealistic" are standard operating procedure for the NFL, so don't be surprised if preferential treatment keeps having an impact on the standings.


All roughing-the-passer statistics via NFLGSIS.com.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.