Defensive players around the NFL are frustrated about roughing-the-passer penalties, questioning what constitutes a legal hit and wondering how far referees will go to protect quarterbacks.
Two disputed calls in Week 5 — one involving Tom Brady — sparked outrage among players, coaches and fans, prompting many to ask for change. The league plans to discuss roughing calls, but no changes are imminent.
“They make it really hard for a defensive player,” Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner said Wednesday. “There’s certain things you can’t do in mid-air. I’ve seen some superheroes do it, but this is not the comics.”
New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan joked about a solution.
“I’ll bring a blanket with me … and I’ll be able to place it before I put him on the ground ever so gently to caress and sing him a lullaby,” Jordan said. “I don’t know. We’ll have to deal with it just like we’ve dealt with it the last couple years.”
The outcry began when Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett was flagged for slinging Brady to the ground during Tampa Bay’s 21-15 win Sunday. The more egregious call came Monday night when Kansas City’s Chris Jones stripped Raiders quarterback Derek Carr from behind and landed on him while also coming up with the ball. Replays showed it was clearly loose and that Jones cleanly recovered, but referee Carl Cheffers threw a flag for roughing the passer.
“I think it’s absolutely insane,” Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen said. “First of all, with the Chris Jones one. It was strip-sack, the ball was out, so it was a loose ball before he even took it to the ground. I think that was a stupid call. I don’t know what they’re protecting on that one. Landing on top of him? It’s a loose ball. That one, I can’t explain that one.”
Jones suggested making roughing-the-passer penalties subject to video review. That decision must go through the league’s Competition Committee — comprised of six team owners/executives and four head coaches. Teams can also propose rule changes to be voted on by owners, which require 24 votes to pass.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay told The Associated Press on Wednesday he would support replay for these penalties.
“I think that’s a wise way to go because there’s too much inequity with what’s able to be challenged and reviewed and what’s not,” Irsay said. “You challenge that call in Kansas City, you win every time. It’s not even close. So I think that’s the way to go. Nothing ever makes it perfect. It’s a fast game, and there’s emphasis put on safety now, as it should be. But you can’t go overboard and ruin the game because the game is special.”
Despite the grievances, roughing-the-passer penalties are down 45% from this point last year. Through Week 5 in 2021, 51 were called. Only 28 have been called this season, according to league stats.
A person with direct knowledge of the matter told the AP the league isn’t planning to make any rule changes. The topic will be discussed when NFL owners meet in New York next week, but the league doesn’t want to be reactionary because of a few blown calls. The league experimented with reviewing pass interference in 2019 and ended it after one season.
Quarterbacks aren’t complaining, of course.
“Keep protecting me as much as possible,” Cleveland Browns QB Jacoby Brissett said. “As many times I can get one, I’ll take one, so I’m not going to complain about that.”
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes saw the call go against his team, but he still sees both sides.
“It’s something where they’re trying to protect the quarterbacks,” Mahomes said. “They’re trying to find the right medium of protecting us, but at the same time letting us play football. This past week was a small window of bad roughing-the-passer penalties, but in the grand scheme, I think they’ve done a good job and they’re going to get better at it.”
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen pointed out that reviewing roughing calls opens the door to other penalties.
“There’s a lot of variables, I think, that go into it,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of other things that are just so arbitrarily called, personal fouls, unnecessary roughness, the unsportsmanlike conducts. You can talk about holding, too. I mean, there’s going to be some that are missed and some that are called that aren’t it or they missed one here or there. And there’s just a lot of variables. These refs are doing the best that they can given the rules. … I think you just got to let them play sometimes. It’s football.”
Football is a violent sport. Quarterbacks are the highest-paid players and the face of the franchise for many teams.
The NFL rulebook allows referees to err on the side of caution to protect QBs. That’ll never change, no matter the complaints.