Can the NFL fix the roughing the passer rule? Potential solutions

One concussed NFL quarterback and two questionable flags for roughing the passer. That's all it took for the first officiating feeding frenzy of the 2022 season.

There is no evidence that Tua Tagovailoa's concussion, and its subsequent fallout, is connected to the pair of penalty flags that prompted leaguewide discussion Sunday and Monday. It makes for an easy narrative -- referees Jerome Boger and Carl Cheffers threw unwarranted flags at the behest of a league that is trying to manage its reputation for player safety -- but it's not supported by anything concrete.

Multiple league and officiating sources said Tuesday there has been no edict to further protect quarterbacks following the Tagovailoa incident. ESPN officiating analyst John Parry, a retired referee who maintains close ties with the league's officiating department, said: "There has been no directive to change anything."

So what is going on here? Why did we see Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Grady Jarrett penalized 15 yards Sunday for "unnecessarily" throwing Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady to the ground, as Boger described it? And why did Cheffers throw a flag on Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones for landing on Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr with his full body weight, as Cheffers said in a subsequent pool report?

NFL owners will discuss roughing the passer when they meet next week in New York, and the NFL's competition committee already has plans to discuss the penalty after the season amid outrage over the two disputed calls.

Let's take a deeper look at the situation, including the revelation that roughing the passer penalties have actually plummeted this season, before considering possible solutions -- including replay review.

Did you say roughing the passer flags are down?

Yes. There have been 29 roughing penalties this season, according to the ESPN Stats & Information database. That's down from 54 through Week 5 last season, 41 in 2020 and 59 in 2010.

The NFL's competition committee was concerned that officials threw too many flags for roughing the passer in 2021. The total was 153, a 12% rise from 2020. In reviewing video of the 2021 season, the committee -- with support from the NFL's football operations department -- found too many instances of flags for mild or inadvertent contact. So the committee issued a point of clarification to remind officials that the rulebook requires "forcible" contact to merit a flag.

So why are we still seeing these types of calls?

The flags from Boger and Cheffers fall into a category the NFL added to the rulebook in 2018, and is only tangentially related to the issue of "forcible" contact the competition committee clarified this spring. The amended roughing the passer rule prohibits defenders "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."

The rule goes on to say a defender "must strive to fall to the side of the quarterback's body, or to brace his fall with his arms to avoid landing on the quarterback with all or most of his body weight."

After issuing its clarification this spring, the competition committee told officials it was satisfied with the way they were calling the body weight/unnecessarily throwing component of the rule and recommended they continue on the current path.

Did Jarrett really throw Brady to the ground unnecessarily?

It's a judgment call, and that's partly why the lead referee is almost solely responsible for calling roughing the passer penalties.

Sometimes referees make mistakes, and this wouldn't be the first time this season we have seen Boger throw a flag for roughing the passer that didn't pass the eye test. You only have to go back to Week 4, when he penalized Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Stephens for what he later said was "forcible contact to the head/neck" of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Replays showed Stephens hit Allen in the chest.

In Kansas City, what could Jones have done differently?

Jones was in an unusual situation because the ball came loose as he and Carr were falling. Jones naturally and instinctively used one arm to grab the ball, limiting his ability to brace the fall or roll to the side. Cheffers said in the pool report that he judged Jones to have landed on Carr "with his full body weight." Again, that is a judgment call, but the fumble certainly complicated the situation for Jones.

Is there any way to fix this?

The NFL will review roughing the passer in the offseason. The league, in fact, reviews every play of every season once it is over. There is no indication that the league will change anything in the short-term, however, as it typically tries to avoid overreacting to a handful of high-profile calls. While they have made in-season adjustments to administrative rules, including the concussion protocol, there is no precedent for changing the written terms of a subjective judgment call during the course of a season.

What about in the long term?

The NFL could consider three options.

First, it could do nothing.

Second, it could raise the standard for throwing a flag for the body weight/unnecessarily throwing component of roughing the passer, requiring more force and violence to merit a penalty. The league, however, rarely changes rules to provide less protection for quarterbacks. If it chose this route, it could be done through a directive to officials during the season or in a rule change during the offseason. Again, there is no indication the NFL is looking to make any in-season adjustments.

Third, it could make roughing the passer subject to replay review.

Replay review? Oh no...

Oh yes.

The Chiefs' Jones is among those advocating for such calls to be reviewed, noting how significantly they can impact the outcome of a game. NFL owners generally have been opposed to making subjective judgment calls part of replay review, with the one-year exception of pass interference in 2019, preferring instead to limit it to objective measurements such as whether a player was in bounds or if he was down by contact.

Adding roughing the passer to replay review would require a rule change that needs approval from 24 of 32 owners.

Would it work?

It would depend on the standard the NFL used to review such calls. Overturning a call on the field currently requires "clear and obvious" evidence of a mistake, according to the league rulebook. When applied to pass interference in 2019, that standard proved too high to address most challenges. The league overturned only 24 of 101 pass interference plays it reviewed.

One source with deep knowledge of officiating said, under the current standard, the Week 5 Boger call would probably be overturned but the Cheffers call would be upheld.

In order to more aggressively address disputes in replay, the standard would have to allow the play to be "re-officiated" rather than viewed for a clear and obvious mistake. That would require a significant philosophical change from owners who are already leery about game interruptions and technological intrusions on the game.

Where do we go from here?

The likeliest outcome is the status quo. Officials are human. Sometimes they make mistakes, and sometimes their calls change the outcome of games. This set of calls came with coincidental timing of a much larger and serious story. The NFL addressed the fallout of Tagovailoa's concussion by updating its concussion protocols but not, by all accounts, asking officials to elevate quarterback protection.