When player safety goes too far

Nathan Terry

News and Opinions Editor

For the past several weeks, football fans have been frustrated and outraged by the massive uptick in personal foul penalties, especially the spike of roughing the passer penalties. With recent rule changes intended to restrict the ways a defensive player can hit the quarterback, many fans and players have complained that the rules unfairly target defensive players and go beyond protecting quarterbacks. The new rule stipulates that defenders tackling the quarterback “must attempt to break their fall” when they land with their full body weight on the quarterback.

Indeed, roughing the passer penalties have skyrocketed early on in the season. Through the first five weeks of the season, referees had issued double the number of flags for roughing the passer than had been assessed in the same time period last season. These calls have literally changed the outcome of games. While some officials seem to be more lenient than others, far too often has a defensive player been penalized for a hit that is all but unavoidable based on the physics of tacking another human being. Simply put, it is nearly impossible for players the size of professional football players going full speed to make a tacking on a moving player and worry about shifting their weight to avoid a penalty. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was victimized by the roughing the passer penalties back to back weeks, including one that led to a Packers tie with the Minnesota Vikings. Although Matthews wasn’t fined on either occasion, he likely spoke for all NFL fans during a press conference when he said “I’m sure what many, if not all of NFL fans and players, are hoping is that they’re not changing the rule but much like the helmet rule we saw in the preseason, it’ll change. I think I speak on behalf of everybody that doesn’t like the rule and the way it’s being called and the way it’s being officiated.”

Matthews’s own teammate Aaron Rodgers was a victim of a hard hit the previous season which led to a broken collarbone. Yet he and other quarterbacks are now reaping the benefits of player safety gone too far. Recently, the NFL has issued clarification on what constitutes a roughing the passer penalty, yet very little has seemed to change in the way the penalty has been assessed. Quarterbacks are already well protected prior to the increased focus on eliminating full body weight hits. Defensive players aren’t allowed to tackle the quarterback below the knee when the defensive player is on the ground, and they also are penalized for hitting the quarterback in the head.

This, in a sense, creates a strike zone for players to aim for when hitting the quarterback; between the shoulder pads and the hips. How a player is expected to aim for such a small area to hit while worrying about their body weight is beyond me. Already, Miami Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes has suffered a torn ACL when he told reporters he tried to change the way he landed on the ground while attempting to sack the quarterback.

Things have gone too far with new rules protecting one player, only to damage another. As players are getting injured and penalized due to over the top rule changes, the players, fans and coaches have continued to lash out at the league.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, one of two coaches on the NFL competition committee, ripped officials after his team’s week five win over the Atlanta Falcons, during which the Steelers were flagged for two personal fouls involving hits on the quarterback. “We gotta get better as a National Football League. Man, these penalties are costing people games and jobs. We gotta get ‘em correct.”

Indeed, with so many flags and so much outrage, something has to change. Defensive players have seen their jobs made far more difficult over the years due to new rules changes first protecting receivers from being hit high when attempting a catch, and now restrictions on hitting quarterbacks. These rules have made average quarterbacks put up elite numbers, and put several quarterbacks on pace to shatter single season records in passing yards and touchdown passes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having all of my fantasy football starters averaging double digit point totals thanks to the explosion in offensive production. But with such an imbalance in the game, the overall NFL product has gone down.

I miss the big hits, the occasional low scoring, grind it out type of game between two top level defenses. Defensive players deserve better than being subjected to unreasonable penalties and fines for hits that would have been deemed clean as recently as last year. While I understand that the league wants to protect its offensive stars and franchise quarterbacks, things have gone too far.

If the NFL wants to restore quality to football, they should loosen the reins on hits on the quarterback. By doing so, the league would create more excitement and less controversy, and win back the faith of fans who have been turned off by the excessive number of roughing the quarterback penalties. Make football exciting again.