New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was on to something earlier this week. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, he previewed the likeliest solution to the NFL's quarterback protection fiasco.
The rule itself does not need to be changed, said Payton, who is a member of the NFL's competition committee. What the NFL wants and needs, he said, was for defenders to avoid "intentionally" falling on quarterbacks with all or most of their body weight.
"Listen," Payton added. "I think it's more about the consistency from crew to crew, and the message from crew to crew to get that on the same page. And that's with any new rule, but that's the biggest challenge."
In fact, a small group of referees are responsible for a large percentage of roughing the passer flags this season, a discrepancy that the NFL hopes to smooth out after issuing a rule clarification Thursday afternoon. It's clear what the league wants -- flags when players intentionally fall on quarterbacks -- but it's obvious that it did not effectively communicate that objective this offseason to all 17 of its officiating crews.
A review of officiating data, via ESPN Stats & Information's database, reveals that four referees have called 53 percent of this season's roughing the passer penalties. As the chart below shows, more than half of the remaining referees have called one or none of these penalties.
And it probably wasn't a coincidence that Payton mentioned the issue of crew-to-crew consistency this week. The Saints' game Sunday at the New York Giants will be handled by referee Pete Morelli's crew, which happens to lead the NFL with six roughing the passer penalties this season.
The crews of Morelli, Carl Cheffers (five), Walt Anderson (four) and John Parry (three) called 18 of the 34 roughing the passer fouls through Week 3. Not all have been for landing on a quarterback with all or most of the body weight, but the point of emphasis has spurred a much wider sensitivity toward quarterback protection.
Nevertheless, three weeks should be a big enough sample size to theorize that the NFL hasn't experienced a widespread and fundamental breakdown in how it wants roughing the passer officiated. If only a small slice of referees have gone overboard, as the data would suggest, then it shouldn't be a massive project to rein them in through better weekly communication.
Thursday's clarification could give referees the leeway they might not have previously felt to avoid penalizing defenders who fell on quarterbacks because they had no other reasonable option. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who has been penalized twice for such instances, told reporters that officiating intent is difficult but "what you'd like to see."
He added: "Because that's the biggest thing is what you see from -- at least my two hits on the quarterback -- it's intent. There's a big difference between falling on a guy and driving a guy on the ground, and I think that would allow the officiating to get much cleaner."
Discrepancies among referees have been obvious, Matthews said.
"I think there's been a lot of inconsistency with how it's been called with different crews out there," he said. "I think that was maybe to clear it up, for officiating."
Indeed, the task of achieving what Payton called "consistency from crew to crew" isn't as daunting as it might appear. Based on field positioning, the referee is responsible for watching the quarterback in the pocket and is almost always the one who actually throws the flag for fouls that occur there. In other words, the line of communication on this issue would go straight from the NFL office to the referee, rather than from the office to the referee to other officials on the crew who are responsible for other penalties.
To be clear, this type of penalty discrepancy is not as unusual as you might think. It's something NFL teams track regularly, some more overtly than others, and is mostly the result of differences in human judgment. Compare it to baseball, in which plate umpires often have their own version of the strike zone.
This season, for example, three NFL crews -- those headed by Morelli, Ronald Torbert and Craig Wrolstad -- have thrown 15 flags for offensive holding in three games. Meanwhile, referee Bill Vinovich's crew has called three. Cheffers' crew has called seven. That means some crews have been calling holding five times as often as another. A portion of that difference is due to the teams involved in the games, but these types of discrepancies often persist through the course of the season.
It's possible the NFL won't, or won't be able to, smooth out calls for roughing the passer. In this case, it will have to balance what it considers a non-negotiable commitment to player safety with the optics of flags for what purists call "football plays."
But there is a way out of this mess, if the NFL chooses to follow through. Payton and Matthews told us everything we needed to know this week.