Remember a few weeks ago when the big concern ahead of the regular season was NFL officials overzealously enforcing the new helmet rule? After a rocky preseason that included plenty of questionable flags we've heard next to nothing about it since. But those concerns have been replaced by something much more sinister: Roughing-the-passer penalties.
Public Enemy No. 1: Clay Matthews.
In back-to-back games, the Packers pass rusher has been flagged twice for what amounts to form-tackling the wrong guy. In Week 2, this was somehow deemed illegal:
Do not hit quarterbacks high. Do not hit quarterbacks low. Do not hit them in the midriff. Roughing the passer on Clay Matthews. pic.twitter.com/pFyMnXxqxG— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) September 16, 2018
Not to be outdone, on Sunday Matthews was flagged again.
Roughing the passer. Clay Matthews may actually kill a referee at this point pic.twitter.com/ta9zJqrAOO— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) September 23, 2018
Yes, we know what Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9 (b) says: "A defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw (a passer) down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender's weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player's arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight."
Fine. It's ridiculous because, you know, this is tackle football, but fine. The issue is that the rule isn't applied consistently. In the very same game, Aaron Rodgers was on the receiving in of a Daron Payne bellyflop:
Daron Payne.— Chad Ryan (@ChadwikoRCC) September 23, 2018
If you're going to take down a QB, take him down hard.
That's his first career sack.#Redskins pic.twitter.com/EuBgT84F9B
There are other examples from Sunday. Here's Philip Rivers:
This was not flagged as a penalty FYI pic.twitter.com/FPGLKuOs21— Alex Gelhar (@AlexGelhar) September 23, 2018
And Dak Prescott:
Seattle brought its pass rush today. This one was not a body weight penalty, apparently pic.twitter.com/rqaKQgZNh7— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) September 23, 2018
After the Packers lost to the Redskins, referee Craig Wrolstad explained his decision to flag Matthews
"That was basically my key -- that [Matthews] landed on him with most or all of his body weight," Wrolstad told a pool reporter. "But if you've got a shoulder into him and then landed on him with most of his body weight off him or released him when he went down, then he would have been OK. But in my judgment, I ruled that he landed on him with most or all of his body weight there."
Former NFL referee Ed Hochuli agrees, telling Pro Football Talk that Matthews' tackle was a "textbook" example of roughing the passer. Again, fine. But how should a defender tackle the quarterback in that situation?
Because Matthews took two steps before getting to Smith, according to Hochuli, he should hit him and roll to the side so as to land on the ground and not on the quarterback.
Matthews, as you might expect, disagrees.
"Obviously when you're tackling a guy from the front you're gonna land on him," Matthews said after the game. "I understand the spirit of the rule, I said that weeks prior. But when you have a hit like that, that's a football play. ...
"Unfortunately this league's going in a direction I think a lot of people don't like," Matthews said. "I think they're getting soft. The only thing hard about this league is the fines they levy down on guys like me who play the game hard."
Even Smith, who somehow took Matthews' body weight and survived, questioned the call.
"It's tough," he said. "I'm glad I don't play defense ... I felt like he's playing football. He's played a long time. He hit me right in the strike zone."
And Matthews found another unlikely ally in Redskins cornerback Josh Norman.
"What else do you want the man to do?" he said. "Like, seriously, what else do you want the man to do? When I saw it, there was no malicious, ill intent. I understand the rules of the situation, but at the same time, it sucks being a defender now. They hit your pockets and then they hit you for a penalty."