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Can the NFL Fix Passer Rule Roughing? Potential Solutions

An NFL quarterback with a concussion and two questionable flags for rudely attacking the passer. That was all it took for the first reigning binge of the 2022 season.

There is no evidence linking Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion and its aftermath to the two penalties that sparked league-wide discussions on Sunday and Monday. It’s a simple narrative – umpires Jerome Boger and Carl Cheffers threw unwarranted flags at the behest of a league trying to manage its reputation for player safety – but it’s not backed by anything concrete.

Multiple league and acting sources said Tuesday that there was no edict to further protect quarterbacks after the Tagovailoa incident. Acting ESPN analyst John Parry, a retired umpire who has close ties with the league’s acting department, said, “There was no direction to change anything.”

So what’s going on here? Why did we see Atlanta Falcons defenseman Grady Jarrett get a 15-yard penalty Sunday for knocking down Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady “unnecessarily,” as Boger described it? And why did Cheffers throw a flag at Kansas City Chiefs defenseman Chris Jones for landing his full bodyweight on Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, Cheffers said in a subsequent pool report?

NFL owners will discuss how to rough up the passer at their meeting in New York next week, and the NFL’s competition committee already has plans to discuss the post-season penalty amid outrage over the two controversial calls.

Let’s take a closer look at the situation, including the revelation that passer penalties have indeed come down this season, before considering possible solutions – including the retest.

Yes. According to ESPN stats, there were 29 gross penalties this season & information database. That’s down from 54 by Week 5 last season, 41 in 2020 and 59 in 2010.

The NFL’s competition committee was concerned officials were throwing too many flags in 2021 to rude passers-by. The total was 153, a 12% increase from 2020. In reviewing the 2021 season video, the committee — with assistance from the NFL Football Operations Department — found too many cases of light or unintentional contact flags. So the committee issued a clarification point to remind officials that the rule book requires “forced” contact to earn a flag.

The Boger and Cheffers flags fall into a category the NFL added to the rulebook in 2018 that is only marginally related to the “forced” contact issue that the competitions committee resolved this spring. The amended roughing-the-passer rule prohibits defenders from “committing such intimidating and punitive acts as cramming a passer into the ground or needlessly wrestling or knocking him down after the passer has thrown the ball”.

The rule further states that a defender “must make every effort to fall to the side of the quarterback’s body or to brace his fall with his arms to avoid landing all or most of his body weight on the quarterback.” .

After the Competition Committee issued its clarification this spring, it told officials it was satisfied with the way they called the bodyweight/unnecessary throwing component of the rule and recommended going on the current path.

It’s a discretionary decision, and that’s partly why the chief referee has almost sole responsibility for issuing penalties for rough passers.

Sometimes referees make mistakes and this wouldn’t be the first time this season that Boger has thrown a flag for rudely attacking a passer who failed the eye test. You just have to go back to Week 4, when he penalized Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Stephens for what he later described as “violent contact with the head/neck” of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Replays showed Stephen hitting Allen in the chest.

Jones found himself in an unusual situation because the ball came loose as he and Carr fell. Jones naturally and instinctively used one arm to grab the ball, limiting his ability to brace the fall or roll sideways. Cheffers said in the pool report that he felt Jones landed on top of Carr “with his full bodyweight.” That, too, is a judgment call, but the fumbling certainly complicated things for Jones.

The NFL will review the passer’s roughing in the offseason. The league actually reviews every game of every season as soon as it’s over. However, there are no signs the league will change anything in the short term, as they usually try to avoid overreacting to a handful of high-profile calls. While she made adjustments to the administrative rules throughout the season, including the concussion protocol, there is no precedent for changing the written terms of a subjective discretion over the course of a season.

The NFL could consider three options.

First, it couldn’t do anything.

Second, it could raise the standard for throwing a flag for bodyweight/unnecessarily throwing the passer’s roughing component, requiring more strength and violence to earn a penalty. However, the league rarely changes the rules to give quarterbacks less protection. If it chose this route, it could be through an in-season directive to officials or through a rule change during the off-season. Again, there’s no indication the NFL plans to make mid-season adjustments.

Third, it could cause the passerby’s roughing to be retested.

Oh yeah.

The Chiefs’ Jones is among those campaigning for such calls to be screened, noting how significantly they can affect the outcome of a game. NFL owners were generally opposed to making subjective assessments as part of the retest, with the one-year exception of passing interference in 2019, preferring instead to limit them to objective measurements such as: e.g. whether a player was in limits or whether he was down contact.

Adding passer roughing to retesting would require a rule change, requiring the approval of 24 out of 32 owners.

It would depend on the standard the NFL uses to screen such calls. Overturning a call on the pitch currently requires “clear and obvious” evidence of error, according to the league’s rulebook. When applied to pass interference in 2019, this standard proved too high to meet most challenges. The league nullified just 24 out of 101 passing interference games reviewed.

A source with in-depth knowledge of the office said under the current standard, Boger’s call would likely be lifted in week 5, but Cheffers’ call would remain.

To address replay disputes more aggressively, the standard would need to allow the game to be “re-officiated” rather than checked for a clear and obvious error. That would require a major philosophical shift from owners who are already suspicious of game breaks and technological intrusion into the game.

The most likely outcome is the status quo. Officials are people. Sometimes they make mistakes, and sometimes their calls change the outcome of games. This series of calls came at the coincidental timing of a much larger and more serious story. The NFL addressed the aftermath of Tagovailoa’s concussion by updating its concussion records, but did not ask all officials to increase quarterback protection.

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