QB protection penalties are way up, and the NFL has a problem

What, dear fan, are you more willing to accept: quarterbacks pummeled and possibly hurt on a weekly basis, or rule enforcement that protects them but at times makes a mockery of the effort? If we've learned anything during the first two weeks of the 2018 season, it's that the NFL has bet on the latter -- even as that bet escalates into one of the biggest stories of the year.

On multiple fronts, and with little public warning, the league has further elevated its extreme measures to protect quarterbacks. There were another six roughing the passer penalties during the first 15 games of Week 2, including a questionably interpreted but game-altering call against Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. That brought the season total to 21, putting the league on an unprecedented pace for the season.

Although the flag frequency decreased from Week 1, the roughing calls -- sparked by a point of emphasis on defensive players landing on quarterbacks -- represent only part of the effort. In a shift that should be receiving more attention than it has, officials have ejected two players for hits to the helmet at the end of quarterback runs.

While merited, those decisions represent the NFL's first such disqualifications, according to research by the website Football Zebras. (Ejections between 2009-17 were all for non-football acts such as fighting or contact with an official.)

Put it all together, said Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, and you've got a directive that appears to "ask guys to play physical, and then be sensitive to one guy on the field." The intent is clear but lamentable, Richardson said.

"Just because fantasy football goes down in the ratings when [a quarterback gets hurt]," he said, "that doesn't mean s--- to me. I grew up watching guys getting their heads blasted in. It's not pretty, but that's the main reason I enjoyed watching football. Especially the brutality and grotesqueness of it. But it is what it is. We understand what's happening."

There seem to be many more reasons to protect quarterbacks, from player safety to superstar preservation, than to sustain the most violent fringes of football. And I think ejecting players for flagrant hits against quarterbacks on the move is overdue.

But it's clear that not everyone agrees, inside or outside of the game. And there is little doubt that officials have been instructed to enforce existing rules far beyond recent precedent, an edict that slipped under the radar during a summer spent focused on a new rule against lowering the head to initiate contact -- one that has produced only two flags in the first 31 games of the season.

Retired NFL referee Terry McAulay, now an NBC rules analyst, has termed the ejections "uncharted territory" and "the two most interesting plays of 2018." He also expressed relief Sunday that he no longer is in position to incorporate the emphasis against roughing the quarterback.

Indeed, what seemed a simple point of emphasis on a specific portion of roughing the passer has intensified into much more.

Among officiating points distributed this summer was a competition committee note on the risk for injury when a defender "used all or part of his body weight to land on a quarterback immediately after the ball is thrown." The committee directed the NFL officiating department to "emphasize that the defender is responsible for avoiding landing on the quarterback when taking him to the ground."

Richardson was one of five players penalized for doing so in Week 1. But even after those calls, 10 other flags came for different classifications of roughing the quarterback. As the chart below shows, that number alone would have tied a recent NFL high for such calls in Week 1.

Referee Tony Corrente, in fact, penalized Mathews for violating the prohibition against lifting a quarterback and driving him into the ground. Replays showed only the slightest hints of that mechanism as Matthews hit Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, but those are the kinds of calls you see when officials are instructed to err on the side of penalty enforcement.

Of the 21 flags thus far, none impacted a game more than the one against Matthews. It overturned a Packers interception with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the Vikings new life on a drive that ultimately tied the game and sent it into overtime.

"You see how it changed the game," Matthews told reporters. "I know there's an emphasis on protecting quarterbacks, but it's gotten out of control. I don't know what else to do."

Coaches have suggested various techniques for minimizing the actions that trigger flags, including rolling off the quarterback and using the "gator tackle" technique that in essence pulls the quarterback on top of the defender. Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said he showed Richardson film of his Week 1 foul, pinpointing the moment to roll away, but both he and Richardson acknowledged the advice sounds easier than it is.

"How would you roll?" Richardson said. "You've got to be on the ground to roll. I don't see too many people able to roll when they're flying through the air. [Quarterbacks] have got to brace for it, too. Everybody gets hurt in this game."

Other than the league backing away, it's difficult to see how this evens out. In some ways, Patterson noted, the small legal strike zone on quarterbacks has contributed to players landing on them in the first place.

Prohibitions against hitting quarterbacks in the pocket in the head or neck area, as well as at or below the knee, leave defenders aiming for their chest and core area.

"If I'm hitting you there," Patterson said, "most likely we're core against core. So most likely we're going to fall on top of each other. Whereas, if I could hit you [low or high], it isn't going to happen. But the core of my body is the core of your body, which is the legal strike zone. Most likely if we both fall down, I'm going to fall on top of you. So you add that next layer."

Enforcement of NFL rule changes and points of emphasis typically fade from the headlines. Sometimes players and officials adjust to accomplish the goal of the new direction and mitigate the number of penalties. Other times, they -- along with fans and media members -- simply grow accustomed to the elevated enforcement. In the case of quarterback health, it seems likely we're headed toward the latter.

Quarterbacks will still be hit, sacked and injured. But a new layer of discipline, via penalties and ejections, is upon us. Gear up. Protection of NFL quarterbacks goes in only one direction.