Graphic by David Jakacky

In any sport, there will always be controversial rules. Some have good reasoning for it, but bad execution can make some just plain awful. Roughing the Passer is one rule that has affected football more than ever since the rule was updated in 2018.

Roughing the Passer is defined as “a foul in which a defensive player makes illegal contact with the quarterback after the latter has thrown a forward pass,” by the NFL rulebook. When this happens, it is a penalty of 15 yards and an automatic first down, and the player can be disqualified if it is deemed as a flagrant infraction. 

Before 2018, the penalty was seen as fair, since it protected the quarterbacks. Then, the rule was updated to its current version in 2018, which has faced some backlash. The new rule states, “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.” The problem is when you try to define what is unnecessary or violent. This confusion has led to some questionable calls and players have gotten suspended.

Outside linebacker Clay Matthews is one of the most notable players to be affected by this rule change. During the first three weeks of the 2018 season, he was called for three Roughing the Passer penalties, which would not have been called before. Two of these penalties directly led to the opposing team winning the game. The NFL also said that they would be using Mattews’ hit on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as the standard to teach referees how to flag players.

Just this past year, at the end of the first half, New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Ellis was called for Roughing the Passer after he hit Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the back of the head. When the play was shown, it was clear he hit him on the nameplate, but because Roughing the Passer is not a reviewable play, it stood and cost the Saints an interception and eventually the game. Tannehill scored right after and the Titans won 23-21.

In 2021, the New England Patriots almost lost to the Buffalo Bills due to one of the most egregious calls ever. Bills quarterback Josh Allen rolled right out of the pocket, past the first down marker, and was running forward when Patriots cornerback Myles Bryant pushed him out of bounds to prevent a first down on third down. However, he was called for Roughing the Passer even though he was a runner. In spite of this call, the Patriots prevailed, thanks to Bryant redeeming himself and swatting down a pass on fourth down, but this could have gone very differently.

These are just some of the many bad calls that were called against teams’ defenses. Looking back before the rule change, Roughing the Passer was only called over 100 times in three seasons since 2009 before the rule change. In 2017 it was called 107 times, the most pre rule change. Since the new rule was put into place, it has been called over 100 times every season. All four seasons eclipsing the mark of 107, with the high coming last season with 154 Roughing the Passer penalties called.

If the NFL is going to continue with this rule staying the same, they have to update it to clarify what counts as “unnecessary and violent.” Roughing the Passer was made to protect the quarterback from dirty hits, but now it has become a rule to penalize defensive players for simply doing their job. The NFL needs to at least allow teams to challenge the penalty, otherwise, it will continue to cost teams games.