Roughing the Passer: Protecting the Quarterback at All Costs

By: Erika Weiler

            On Sunday, September 23 the Green Bay Packers traveled to Landover, Maryland to take on the Washington Redskins where Washington won 31-17. However, the score is not what everyone has been talking about. Clay Matthews, Green Bay’s linebacker, tackled Washington’s quarterback for a sack and received a penalty for rushing the passer. Matthews received the same penalty three weeks in a row this season. [1] Matthews received the same penalty four times over the last nine seasons, leading many to question why the sudden surge in roughing the passer calls?[2] The National Football League’s (NFL) Football Operations lists “Roughing The Passer” in Rule 12 Section 2 Article 9.[3] The rule states “special rules apply” in assessing whether there should be a roughing the passer call and section two of the rule is the current focus of critics.[4] Section Two reads:

A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as “stuffing” a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball, even if the rusher makes his initial contact with the passer within the one-step limitation provided for in (a) above. When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him 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.[5]


The need for the new rule was stressed after last season when Green Bay’s quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, was landed on by Anthony Barr, a Minnesota Vikings defensive player.[6] Rodgers’ collarbone was broken after Barr landed on him taking one “of the leagues star players off the field, and the NFL doesn’t want to see its moneymakers sidelined again.”[7] Although the rule was made to protect quarterbacks, some quarterbacks are speaking out against the extreme enforcement of the new rule. Quarterbacks such as Rodgers and Baltimore Raven’s quarterback Joe Flacco, have spoken out against the quarterback protection stating “this is football man. We all sign up to get hit.”[8]

Defensive players are unsure of what to do. Another incident occurred on Sunday September 23 when a defensive player get injured attempting to avoid a roughing the passer penalty.[9] The Miami Dolphins’ pass rusher William Hayes tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) while rushing Oakland’s quarterback because he was trying to avoid putting his body weight on the quarterback to avoid the flag.[10] With the league’s emphasis on protecting the quarterback, they begin to oversee the potential for injuries for other players in their respective positions. James Harrison, a retired linebacker who played in the NFL for fifteen seasons, reiterates a theme “that has irked defenders for ages – the double standard of rules that are titled to protect quarterbacks, creating the perceptions that the health of defensive players is less valued.” [11] Harrison pointed to another play from Sunday where the tight end for Pittsburgh made clear helmet contact against the safety for Tampa Bay and the referees did not throw a penalty.[12]

It is unlikely the NFL will change their rules during the season; however, the enforcement of the rule needs to change.[13] The NFL’s Competition Committee met for a conference call to discuss whether the rule was being properly implemented.[14] Subsequently, the league provided clarification but no substantive change to the rule.[15] Safety of the quarterback is a concern for team owners and the league overall.[16] Some contest the rule change was to “assuage fears that the systemic injuries to its biggest stars was hurting the NFL’s bottom line. It certainly wasn’t a concern for player’s safety.”[17] It is understandable for the NFL to want to protect the quarterback as many consider the quarterback to be the most important position.[18] However, when officials are enforcing the roughing the passer rule as vigorously as they have been they begin to impact the game as defensive players are afraid to do their job and fans become irritated by the unnecessary calls. The new rule on roughing the passer will affect the game as the quarterback is a major playmaker and the extra protection afforded may prove to be impactful on scoring.

The NFL is unlikely to change the rules during the season, but officials can adjust how they are making the call. Changes during the season on rules such as roughing the passer would likely cause confusion and delay during the game by players and officials. Adjustments may be necessary to ensure quarterbacks safety and to prevent defensive players from getting injured trying to avoid the call. A roughing the passer call could result with an offense receiving a first down when the defense was able to hold them, and that first down could result in scoring. With the playoffs underway, the roughing the passer call will be important to avoid as teams are putting everything on the line and one loss means your season is over.


[1] Cindy Boren, Everyone Really, Really Hates the NFL’s Roughing the Passer Calls. Especially Clay Matthew, The Washington Post, (Sept. 24, 2018),

[2] Id.

[3] NFL Football Operations, Roughing the Passer, (last visited Sept. 26, 2018).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Ben Volin, NFL is Taking Rules to Protect Quarterbacks Too Far, The Boston Globe (Sept. 22, 2018),

[9] Kevin Patra, Hayes Tore ACL While Avoiding Putting Weight on QB, NFL (Sept. 24, 2018, 12:04 PM), weight-on-qb.

[10] Id.

[11] Jarrett Bell, Clay Matthews ‘poster boy’ for Roughing the Passer, USA TODAY (Sept. 26, 2018 12:11 AM),

[12] Id.

[13] Christian D’Andrea, NFL Solution to Roughing the Passer Falls Short, SBNation (Sept. 27, 2018 1:51 PM),

[14] Spencer Lund, NFL Rethinking Roughing the Passer Penalty, Complex (Sept. 25, 2018),; Ian Rappaport, Competition committee believes roughing passer penalties will decrease, NFL.Com (Sept. 30, 2018),

[15] Kevin Seifert, NFL clarifies roughing the passer rule to ‘ensure consistency’, ESPN.Com (Sept. 27, 2018),

[16] See generally note 11.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.