Oops, They Did it Again: Controversial NFL rule changes lead to egregious officiating

On Sept. 16, with 1 minute and 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Green Bay Packers held a 29-21 lead over the favorite Minnesota Vikings. In this Week 2 game of the NFL season, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped back to pass but overthrew it, resulting in an interception by Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander.

The interception would’ve been Cousins’ second and would’ve sealed the win for the Packers.

However the play would not stand and would be one of the defining examples of a rule change that would shape how football is played as long as the rule is in effect.

Edge rusher Clay Matthews hit Cousins as he released the ball, adjusting his body to avoid landing with his body weight — a point of emphasis for the NFL this year — and turned his head sideways to avoid making helmet-to-helmet contact, completing a textbook hit as the ball was released.

Instead of celebrating a game-sealing interception, Matthews was flagged for roughing the passer, costing the Packers the turnover, the field position and ultimately the win.

Matthews did everything the NFL has emphasized in terms of tackling and was punished for it.

The Vikings marched down the field and scored the game-tying touchdown.

The game would end in a tie — the second in as many weeks that is the byproduct of another controversial rule change.

The two rule changes have led to a plethora of backlash from NFL coaches, fans and players who are all incredibly disappointed with the product on the field, particularly in the midst of the NFL’s current ratings slump.

Before the 2018 season, the NFL competition committee voted to shorten overtime from 15 minutes to 10 minutes.

The change led to ties in two divisional games that should have been crucial playoff implications.

The NFL is not the league for ties, but player safety is rightly a point of emphasis. The decision to shorten overtime is a noble decision that can help keep players healthy.

However, football players should not put their bodies — and especially their brains — on the line for the sake of a tie. The 16-game, 17-week season is too short to permit ties.

If overtime needs to be shortened, the NFL should revert back to sudden death rules.

Only then will the rule change be beneficial for players and coaches, and ties would be much less likely.

While the overtime rules are controversial, they have not completely upended the product left on the field during game.

The decision to stiffen the roughing the passer rules and make them a point of emphasis was made with the intent to protect quarterbacks.

The main change that has jokingly been dubbed the “Aaron Rodgers rule” by the quarterback’s detractors, bars defensive players from landing on opposing quarterbacks with all of their body weight.

Essentially, the laws of physics are illegal while tackling quarterbacks.

The rule change has led to nothing but controversy, as referees are seemingly incapable of enforcing the rules correctly, calling penalties on clean tackles and not calling penalties on tackles that would fall under the rule.

Matthews’ tackle against the Vikings, which has been dubbed clean by almost everyone who has ever been involved with the game of football, was put in a package sent to teams as an example of a dirty hit.

That’s right, the men and women in the league office — many of whom have never strapped on pads and buckled their chinstraps in the heat of a game — have dubbed a textbook tackle that follows every rule they set as an example of an illegal hit and a bad tackle.

Following the game, referee Tony Corrente essentially admitted he didn’t know how to assess that play, saying it didn’t fall under the new rule. If it didn’t fall under the new rule, what rule did it fall under?

There’s an old adage that says it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought the fool than open your mouth and erase all doubt.

Referees don’t know how to officiate games anymore and are beginning to look the part of fools.

When they open their mouths to explain bad penalties, they erase the doubt.

The controversy with the rule did not start with the first Matthews hit.

In fact, penalties following the new rules had been assessed frequently during the preseason and Week 1.

However, Matthews’ penalty was the first to really open the eyes of football pundits and fans on how much of a problem the change is. The controversy would only continue in Week 3.

On Sept. 23, the Packers trailed the Washington Redskins with 1 minute and 50 seconds left in the third quarter. Matthews ran into the backfield untouched and landed another clean shot on Redskins QB Alex Smith. The play forced a very long third down and would’ve contributed to the Packers’ momentum swing.

Matthews turned to the referee as soon as he made the hit, only to duck his head in shame as another decidedly atrocious personal foul was called — the linebacker’s third in as many games. While the play did not directly contribute to the outcome of the game, it kept the momentum with the Redskins and infuriated football fans nationwide. The most shocking aspect of the play was that a much more blatant and obvious call was missed mere moments before that.

Just a few plays earlier, Rodgers was sacked. He was picked up and driven into the ground by defensive end Daron Payne, who landed on Rodgers with all his body weight.

There was no flag on the play. Referee Craig Wrolstad told Rodgers on a hot microphone that he “couldn’t see through 14 bodies on the play,” which is an excuse for just missing the call. The obvious inconsistency in the assessment of these penalties is what makes the new rule change so controversial.

Following the game, Matthews let his feelings be known, stating, “Unfortunately, this league is going in a direction I think a lot of people don’t like. I think they’re getting soft.”

As mentioned, the trend started in the preseason, when the calls were excused as warnings from the officials. However, three weeks into a 17-week NFL season, the calls have been just as bad in multiple games, changing the outcome of at least one of them.

Not only is the new rule unenforceable — it’s literally causing players to injure themselves doing something as simple as tackling an opposing player. Just ask Miami Dolphins defensive end William Hayes how detrimental this new rule is.

In his team’s matchup against the Oakland Raiders, Hayes tore his ACL attempting to tackle quarterback Derek Carr. Following the injury, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who was also injured following a tackling attempt, voiced his displeasure, tweeting, “They don’t care about the rest of us getting hurt. Long as the QB is safe.”

This is unacceptable. Player safety is paramount and, therefore, rules protecting helmet-to-helmet and defensive hits are common sense at this point.

However, when simple tackling rules are changed to the point that players suffer season injuries trying to adjust their bodies while hitting a quarterback cleanly, or simply not tackling the quarterback and giving up big plays, as with the Packers’ defensive end Mike Daniels, something needs to be done.

Sure, quarterbacks are the moneymakers for the NFL. They’re the highest-paid players for good reason, as they can single-handedly make the difference between a 7-9 and 12-4 team.

Talented quarterbacks are commodities in the NFL, and there are only about four or five elite quarterbacks in the league. However, they are football players too. Quarterbacks have been getting hit since the first forward pass was thrown in 1906. They put on pads and a helmet, scramble out of the pocket, run for first downs and even occasionally block. They don’t wear flags or red jerseys on Thursdays, Sundays or Mondays. At this rate, they may start doing that soon. If the new rules are here to stay, then these rules must be called consistently, which they clearly haven’t been.

The other fact of the matter is no matter how much the rules are changed, injuries will occur. They are an unfortunate side effect of playing in the NFL. Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and former Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater both tore their ACLs in practice, and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL on a scramble play.

The human body isn’t designed to play football, which is why the players are paid so much. Ultimately, the league can only protect players so much before turning the game on its head, and hopefully, it can correct its knee-jerk reaction to injuries before fans and players turn on it.

The NFL is entertainment, plain and simple, but what makes it entertaining is the fact that fans get to watch the greatest athletes in the world play the game they love.

If textbook tackles are penalties in today’s NFL, players can’t play the game correctly. If they can’t play the game correctly, the product will no longer be entertaining, and the teams, league and players will lose money as fans begin to walk away from the game. This is a serious problem with today’s NFL and will just contribute to the league’s falling ratings.

As mentioned before, the NFL is an entertainment corporation. The member franchises are worth an estimated $62.9 billion collectively. Millions watch the NFL every week, and, even with a ratings slump, the league’s programming is among the highest-rated every week.

When officiating takes center stage and deplorable penalties lead to meaningless ties in crucial games, players can’t do their jobs and entertain the fans. If that happens, ratings will drop even more, and the entertainment aspect will go away.

This is less of an indictment on the referees and more of a call to action for the NFL to amend rules that officials cannot enforce without affecting the game as we know it.

The league was able to alter the controversial catch rules that used to change the outcomes of playoff games because they were so incredibly flawed. If they want to save the game they love, players and coaches need to stand up to the new tackling rule.

Former players and coaches who work in NFL front offices need to speak up for the game and make sure that these rule changes don’t ruin it for good. Otherwise, the game of football as we know it will become extinct.

October 3, 2018

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Andrew Marzullo

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