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NFL looking to close gaps in roughing-the-passer calls

NFL is making 2 refinements to focus on catching roughing the passer calls that go undetected.



NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has instructed the officiating department to take a closer look at roughing the passer fouls — both called and uncalled — in order to provide more consistency and protection to the quarterback position. The officiating department is looking at two ways to adjust mechanics that recognize some of the difficulties in evaluating fouls for roughing the passer in real time.

Defenders are faking out referees

When the enforcement was tightened around roughing the passer in 2018, there was an emphasis on “pancaking” tackles on the quarterback, or actions where the defender allows his weight to deliberately drop on the quarterback.

The initial guidance to defensive linemen and linebackers suggested that they should shift their weight. As the new emphasis point on paper was demonstrated in the on-field laboratory, officials found that players would adjust their approach by using their hands to brace and arrest the crush of their weight on the quarterback.

Now, the two new senior vice presidents of officiating, former referee Walt Anderson and former coach Perry Fewell, have instructed referees to be on the lookout for defenders who throw their arms outward in the appearance of bracing their fall, but still quite literally dropping their full body weight on the quarterback. An analysis of quarterback hits by the league office, elevated to Goodell and executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, showed cases where an injury resulted from a tackle when the defender appeared to mitigate slamming his weight into the passer.

The technique is known in defensive huddles as “burping,” which has a defender wrapping around the frame of the quarterback to his back and driving him to the ground. In order to pass off the contact as legal, the defender’s arms come out to the side or to the front as “Superman arms,” mimicking the superhero in flight. In reality, they are not reducing the crush. In some cases the helmet or facemask can rest on the quarterback’s chest, which creates a great deal of compression that is uncommon in tackles involving runners, as seen here where Steelers linebacker Vince Williams tackled Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

If the technique is carried out as planned, the quarterback will have one or both of his arms forced to his side by the maneuver, which restricts his ability to brace his fall. Just prior to contacting the ground, the defender releases the quarterback who doesn’t have enough time to brace his fall, as shown when Wentz is tackled by Ravens defensive end Jihad Ward.

While defenders can effect this maneuver in a head-on tackle fairly easily, the burping technique can also be approached from the side of the quarterback, constraining both arms and releasing just prior to impact.

Conversely, defenders that mimic a push-up with the back arched up will be seen as properly tackling the quarterback, or at the least not lowering their weight, absent other roughness tactics.

Referees are still having to make a judgment call, and the rule and the interpretation haven’t changed, but they are on the lookout for defenders dropping 300 pounds on an exposed quarterback standing in the pocket. Both of these examples were caught by the referees and correctly flagged as roughness, even though it elicited light discord from the television analysts; but now referees are on alert for these defensive tactics in order for fouls to be called more consistently.

Let’s bring in the umpire

One additional mechanics adjustment allows an additional sight line added to contact to the head and neck area of the quarterback. The referee has sole and primary responsibility on the quarterback, but their positioning sometimes block out contact that should be a foul. Quite often, referees are lambasted by fans for missing the “obvious” call with the benefit of carefully curated slow-motion replays from the optimal angles. But if the quarterback’s body or other players completely obscure the foul, no flag will fly.

Recognizing that there is — I hate to use the term here — a blind spot depending on the flow of the play, senior vice president of officiating and development Walt Anderson is working with the position supervisor for the umpires, Garth DeFelice, on a slight adjustment to assist on roughing the passer calls. The umpire doesn’t make these calls because it means that the umpire is not focusing on their key area and potentially missing something.

If the flow of the defensive attack is coming toward the referee, he does not have a view of any illegal contact to the front of the helmet of the quarterback. At times, a quarterback’s head may jostle on impact, which could be a legal hit to the chest, but also might ride up right underneath the chin. This has lead to miscalls both ways.

Putting player safety ahead, the umpire is going to be released from holding and other calls to briefly catch a look if a defender has a path to the quarterback in cases where the referee might get straightlined. The focus would be for forcible blows to the head or neck area of the passer as well face mask fouls. Sending a second set of eyes into this seam from another angle will draw the once very rare occurrence of an umpire throwing a flag for roughing the passer.

In the video below, there is forcible contact to the head of Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. The contact is to the emblem on the left side of the helmet, but referee Shawn Hochuli can see the right emblem from his vantage point. He does not have a clear view to determine forcible or incidental contact on the quarterback. Umpire Ramon George, who is watching for holding or other illegal acts between Buccaneers offensive lineman Donovan Smith and Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark, quickly transitions to monitor contact by Clark on Brady, recognizing that the approach vector is not in Hochuli’s sight line. Ramon throws the flag and then discusses what he saw with Hochuli.

As for now, the focus is from the neck up on the quarterback, and not to the hits at or below the knee. While there are still mistakes made on calls in that lower zone, the decision was made to not overload the umpire with multiple points, although there is a recognition that there could be an expansion over time to more quarterback coverage. Also, umpires will still maintain their keys on scrambling quarterbacks, even if they enter the umpire’s zone. On these types of plays, holding can occur, so it is incumbent upon the referee to get into position in the opposite zone to stay with the quarterback and not rely on the umpire to assist.

These involve very technical and involved mechanics in order to make a judgment call with one look in real time. Bringing the umpire into the quarterback realm is definitely forging new territory — something one official told us has been referred to as “releasing the Kraken” in the offensive backfield.

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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