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2018 Preseason

Preseason flags are not ‘the end of football as we know it’

Antwione Williams is flagged for roughing the passer on a sack. A look at what was called and if this matches up with the new rules.



The waning days of summer are too precious to waste on analyzing preseason football. But, here we are with an unprecedented collection of major rule changes and points of emphasis. And we are going to single out one call from the second full week of preseason.

Vikings linebacker Antwione Williams easily slips past the offensive line and makes a beeline for startled Jaguars quarterback Cody Kessler. On the sack, Williams is penalized for roughing the passer.

The twitteratti handled it in the only way it knows how.

So let’s unpack what we have here: This has nothing to do with the use of the helmet, so we can eliminate all of the furor over that rule for the time being. The call was announced as “roughing the passer” with a slightly decipherable reference to the defender landing on the quarterback.

Officials are going to be aware of contact specifically to the quarterback. Football Zebras asked referee Tony Corrente at a rules session about this point of emphasis, and he described the call they are looking at as “pancaking” the quarterback. When the quarterback is in a passing posture, he has defenseless player protections, however the emphasis point closes an exploitable opportunity for defenders to stuff the quarterback in a way that other ball carriers would not be.

Back to the original call, it cannot be “roughing the passer,” because that call is reserved for a player in a passing posture. It can be unnecessary roughness, under the pancaking emphasis point, but clearly Williams has deftly approached the quarterback within the geometry of the new rules. He did not lower his helmet, and he kept his body weight off the quarterback while completing the sack. 

So why the flag? And shouldn’t fans be outraged? Officiating is a science of angles, and all the television angles showed Williams did not deliver a pancake tackle. Yet, we were missing the angle the referee had, which was partly straightlined by the blitzing Williams. Nonetheless, the referee, with a key on the quarterback, must draw on his experience to determine if he sees what he sees, or if his angle gives him something else. 

The flag came from recently promoted referee Shawn Hochuli, who last worked at the referee position in the Pac-12. He will certainly see this call in the weekly video from the officiating office. And, fortunately, this happened in preseason where he can make adjustments for when the games count. It is what officials do, and while preseason games will fade from our memories by Labor Day, this call will be self-scrutinized long after. For example, referee Carl Cheffers did not call a clear unnecessary roughness foul in his first regular-season game in 2008, a hit that sidelined Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for the season. Cheffers could not have prevented the injury, but the no-call was a miscall. Despite an inauspicious start, he was assigned Super Bowl LI, which Brady and the Patriots won in overtime.

Hochuli will have a couple more games to get the kinks out before it’s for reals. His father, Ed, who retired this year had some extra developmental reps before getting regular season NFL games. He worked in NFL Europe — then known as the World League of American Football — which served as a development league for players and officials. Without having any meaningful development program in place since the closing of NFL Europe in 2007, the NFL has promoted four referees this year with the hope that major mistakes like this will be confined to the preseason.

To those who swear off the NFL because of this, a reminder that your NFL Sunday Ticket is nonrefundable.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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