Dirty Laundry: Helmet to Rodgers' helmet

You overwhelmed the mailbag this week with exasperation over another seemingly illegal but unpenalized hit on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, this one a helmet-to-helmet blow that caused a concussion at the end of a 16-13 overtime loss at the Washington Redskins. So I decided to combine our weekly Dirty Laundry post with the mailbag and try to make some sense out of this issue.

As you know by now, Rodgers had just released a pass in overtime when Redskins defensive end Jeremy Jarmon hit the front of his head with his helmet. Redskins safety LaRon Landry intercepted the errant throw at the Packers' 39-yard line, setting up the Redskins' game-winning field goal. Replays showed Jarmon holding his hands up as if to signify he had pulled up before the hit, but there is no denying that illegal contact occurred. The resulting call should gave returned possession to the Packers and put them at the 39-yard line.

On Friday, the NFL fined Jarmon $5,000 for unnecessary roughness -- a tacit admission that referee Gene Steratore's crew missed the call. The same thing happened last January, when referee Scott Green's crew failed to call Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Bertrand Berry for another clear helmet-to-helmet hit in the Packers' overtime loss.

Having not seen every play of every game Rodgers has started, those were the two major calls that popped in my head. After opening up the issue on Twitter, readers brought up at least a half-dozen other calls that were questionable at best.

Jon of Madison, Wis., wrote this representative plea:

Being a Packer fan, I am pretty upset with the way Aaron Rodgers is abused on the field without penalty. Now, I watch almost every game that is broadcasted in my area and it seems as though it only happens to Rodgers. And I'm not saying that as a blind fan. I would like to see the stats on Rodgers roughing penalties vs. all the other QB's in the league and would also like to see how many no calls penalties he has had. I can think of at least four helmet-to-helmet big hits that happened since last year.

Unfortunately, the NFL almost never comments on individual calls or on team-by-team disparities. There isn't a lot of data on it either. But one avenue I'm just starting to explore -- with a push from NFC West colleague Mike Sando and a big assist from ESPN's Stats & Information -- is tracking the tendencies of the 17 individual officiating crews.

After messing around with a spreadsheet for a while, I turned up this interesting and possibly relevant nugget: Steratore's crew hasn't made a single unnecessary roughness call all season. It's the only crew without one. For context, referee Tony Corrente's crew is at the high end with 11. And for what it's worth, Green's 2010 crew has made three such calls.

Steratore's crew has called three roughing-the-passer penalties this season, and no crew has called more than four. But the helmet-to-helmet call technically falls under unnecessary roughness, not roughing the passer. We all know how violent NFL games are. Objectively speaking, Steratore's crew has been awfully stingy on the former.

I don't think we have enough data to suggest Rodgers has had the misfortune of getting hit in the head during games officiated by crews that don't often make that call. But just as we see in baseball, I think we can all agree that NFL games are impacted to some extent by the subjective and inconsistent decisions of their rotating officials.

Even with that said, I can't accept that officials who are stingy with a certain call should have missed either the Jarmon or Berry hits. They were blatant and came in an era when the league has instructed officials to make every effort to protect all quarterbacks. Independent of any tendencies, they were simply bad and inexcusable non-calls. The subsequent fines confirmed as much. I don't have any way to sugarcoat that for you, but I'll continue to study the officiating spreadsheet this season to see what other trends we turn up.

Before we get to our Challenge Tracker, I'll publish the entirety of the NFL that relates to helmet-to-helmet hits. (For those following at home, it's Rule 12, Section 2, Article 13.3.)

In covering the passer position, Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer in the head, neck, or face (see also the other unnecessary-roughness rules covering these subjects).

A defensive player must not use his facemask or other part of his helmet against a passer who is in a virtually defenseless posture -- for example, (a) forcibly hitting the passer's head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him, or (b) lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the "hairline" or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the passer's body.

This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer. A defensive player must not "launch" himself (spring forward and upward) into a passer, or otherwise strike him in a way that causes the defensive player's helmet or facemask to forcibly strike the passer's head, neck, or face -- even if the initial contact of the defender's helmet or facemask is lower than the passer's neck.

Examples: (a) a defender buries his facemask into a passer's high chest area, but the defender's trajectory as he leaps into the passer causes the defender's helmet to strike the passer violently in the head or face; (b) a defender, using a face-on posture or with head slightly lowered, hits a passer in an area below the passer's neck, then the defender's head moves upward, resulting in strong contact by the defender's mask or helmet with the passer's head, neck, or face (one example of this is the so-called "dip-and-rip" technique).