Does the NFL have a roughing the passer problem? Refs caution against overreaction

Excuse NFL pass rushers if they’re suddenly unsure how to tackle the quarterback.

Last week, referees seemed to call roughing the passer anytime a defender delivered a hit without laying down a bed of pillows first.

The spate of disputed flags started Sunday afternoon with this Oscar-worthy flop by Cleveland’s Jacoby Brissett against the Los Angeles Chargers. Minutes later, Atlanta’s last-gasp comeback hopes dimmed when an apparent third-down sack of Tom Brady resulted in a drive-extending personal foul.

Then on Monday night, another controversial roughing the passer call negated an apparent strip sack of Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr. Kansas City’s Chris Jones drew the penalty for landing on Carr with most of his body weight even though Jones forced a fumble and recovered it on his way to the ground.

That trio of calls incited widespread outrage in NFL circles. Anyone from players, to coaches, to analysts argued that the league had gone too far in its efforts to protect its most extravagantly paid and marketable position group.

“What has happened to football?” ex-Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason fumed. “QBs might as well wear flags.”

“This is not football anymore,” Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy wrote. “I know we have to protect the QB but Chris Jones was recovering a fumble.”

“Change the rules or just make the league 7 on 7!!” Dallas Cowboys edge rusher and league co-leader in sacks Micah Parsons tweeted. He added later, “They want us to play like we are playing in the pro bowl!!”

Does the NFL have a roughing the passer problem? Should the league’s competition committee raise the threshold for throwing a flag after the season? Or make the penalty reviewable? Officiating sources who spoke with Yahoo Sports emphatically say no. Two longtime former NFL referees described the league’s recent flurry of dubious roughing the passer penalties as a “coincidence” and cautioned against overreacting.

The numbers corroborate the referees’ argument. While the perception after last weekend may be that the frequency of roughing the passer calls is skyrocketing, the reality is that referees have assessed the penalty less this season than in previous years.

Through five weeks of the 2022 season, roughing the passer has been called 26 times, per nflpenalties.com. That’s down from 51 last season, from 38 the season before that, from 54 the season before that and from 49 the season before that.

“I hope the NFL maintains the status quo,” said Mike Carey, an NFL referee from 1995-2014. “I think the roughing the passer rule is very well written. It gives enough latitude to the referee that you’re not held to calling it when in your mind it’s not a foul, nor are you held to not calling it when in your mind it is.”

Grady Jarrett sacks Tom Brady during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Falcons-Bucs game. Jarrett was flagged for roughing the passer. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

‘What do you want me to do?’

The origin story of the roughing the passer penalty dates back to the days of Sammy Baugh ushering in the age of the forward pass. Since throwing the ball left Baugh vulnerable to injury, the NFL in 1938 implemented a rule penalizing the defense 15 yards for deliberately hitting the quarterback after the pass left his hands.

Over the ensuing decades, as the sport of football has become increasingly quarterback-driven, the roughing the passer penalty has evolved. The NFL has sought to protect quarterbacks from defenders pile-driving them into the ground, landing on them with all their body weight or forcibly hitting them below the knees or in the head.

It was the supposed violence of Grady Jarrett’s hit on Brady that elicited a roughing-the-passer penalty and robbed Atlanta of the chance to mount a game-winning drive. Referee Jerome Boger told a pool reporter after Sunday’s game that he threw the flag because Jarrett “unnecessarily” slammed Brady to the ground.

On his weekly radio show on Tuesday, Jarrett said he was still in “disbelief” over being flagged for such an innocuous hit and that he is “left clueless what I’m expected to do in that situation.” The referees who spoke with Yahoo Sports sided with Jarrett, arguing that the Atlanta defensive tackle did not use unnecessary force when he threw Brady to the ground.

“On film, it doesn’t look like enough,” Carey said. “Sometimes we’re invested in our calls and it takes a while for reality to settle in, but that’s one where I’m sure when Jerome saw it on replay, he wished he didn’t call it.”

The Jarrett call comes just two weeks after Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a concussion when a Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle drove his head into the turf. Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles suggested that the fallout from Tagovailoa’s concussion may have influenced Sunday’s call, but subsequent reports said the NFL had not issued any directive to further protect quarterbacks following the Tagovailoa incident.

While the call against Jarrett appears to be unwarranted, referees say the one that cost Kansas City a strip sack the next night is a little murkier. Carey says it was a “clear call” because Jones “let his full body weight land on the quarterback.” Another retired NFL referee described the call as defensible but questioned whether from his vantage point behind the play referee Carl Cheffers could see Jones recover the ball with one hand and brace his fall with the other.

“That was a tough call with the play going away from [Cheffers],” said the longtime referee who spoke to Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity. “[Jones] did put one arm out, but if Carr comes out of it with a dislocated shoulder, then everyone says, ‘Why didn’t they call roughing the passer?’ “

The call against Jones occurred with Kansas City trailing Las Vegas 17-7 late in the first half. It remained a sore spot for the Chiefs even after they rallied for a 30-29 victory.

“I’m 325 pounds,” Jones told reporters in the postgame locker room. “I’m running full speed trying to get the quarterback. I hit the ball. I braced my hands. What [do] you want me to do?”

Should roughing be reviewable?

Jarrett and Jones both proposed the same solution in the wake of the calls that went against them. The two sack specialists want roughing-the-passer penalties to be reviewable the same way that completions or fumbles or goal-line plays are.

“We’ve got to be able to see it in the booth now,” Jones said. “I think that’s the next step.”

It’s tough to imagine the NFL adopting that suggestion considering what happened the last time the league made a highly subjective call reviewable. The NFL’s experimental pass interference review system was such a disaster in 2019 that the league scrapped it after just one season.

Chief among the issues was the impossibly high standard that the NFL’s New York command center used to overturn the call on the field. Of the 81 pass interference challenges during the 2019 season, only 13 were successful.

The anonymous longtime referee described the pass interference review system as a “debacle.” He said a roughing up the passer review system would be “more of the same.”

“I’m not in favor of going to replay to look at these,” he said. “I tell folks, ‘What do you want? Do you want every infinitesimal thing reviewed?’ That was never the intention of replay. The intent of replay was to fix the obvious errors.”

Carey also sees little value in replacing a judgment call made on the field with another made in the booth. He points out from firsthand evidence that a video replay can occasionally be deceiving.

On January 3, 1993, Carey was the sideline judge during a historic NFL playoff game, one in which the Buffalo Bills stormed back from a 35-3 deficit to stun the Houston Oilers. Carey made a pivotal call that preserved Buffalo’s second touchdown of the day. TV replays from above the field appeared to show receiver Don Beebe partially stepping out of bounds before catching a 38-yard touchdown pass, but Carey insists that from his vantage point at field level he could see Beebe’s heel hovering above the sideline.

A judgment call like roughing the passer presents many more challenges if made reviewable.

“I’d be shocked if they go down that road again,” Carey said. “Just like pass interference, it’s such a dynamic play that on the difficult ones it’s very rare to have a unanimous decision.”