Ken Whisenhunt asks NFL: What is the rule on hitting quarterbacks?


During Sunday’s Panthers-Cardinals game, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton threw an interception that was called back because Arizona defensive back Richard Marshall was flagged for roughing the passer. That flag had Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wondering what the rule is on hits to quarterbacks.

“What exactly is the rule in that instance?” Whisenhunt asked at his press conference. “I mean, that’s something that I’ve got to get clarification on.”

Whisenhunt is right to ask for clarification: Marshall did leave his feet to hit Newton, but he led with his shoulder into Newton’s shoulder, not with his head into Newton’s head. It’s obviously still not clear to coaches, players or fans whether what Marshall did should be a penalty or not.

Part of the problem is that the officials don’t offer enough clarity about what they’re calling. When the referee announced the penalty on Marshall, he just said it was roughing the passer — he didn’t explain what, exactly, Marshall did that constitutes roughing the passer. Whisenhunt said he’s going to need a clarification from the league office because when he asked the ref during the game he didn’t get an adequate explanation.

“I asked him what it was called for,” Whisenhunt said. “Was it a hit to the head? I think [Marshall] tried to do it the right way. He certainly didn’t lead with his head.”

Last month the NFL released a video that was supposed to clarify the rules to players and coaches. There’s clearly a lot more clarification needed. Whisenhunt is trying to get some clarification from the league office this week.

71 responses to “Ken Whisenhunt asks NFL: What is the rule on hitting quarterbacks?

  1. This is such a joke. The rules are still not clear on what constitutes a roughing call. This is supposed to be a professional league. Please Goddell, get your act together. This is getting embarrassing. It’s like the refs are thinking, “ohhh, Cam got hit pretty hard there. it looked bad. We have to protect these guys or we’ll get in trouble. Better be safe and throw the flag.” Jesus.

  2. Watching, as many fans, quite a few games starting 1st week you saw a lot of hits on the QB that you wondered why no flag and then some thrown. Saw a lot of pushing down of the QB once ball had been thrown. Saw a few hits from knee and below no flag. Nothing seemsd to be consistent from crew to crew. By now you would think coaches and players would no what is what. I did think it was odd how many times Miami could have touched Brady not as a sack but as the usual push afterwords and they held up. A QB is A QB should be for all what is called. This call did seem bogus on Newton, considering other hits.

  3. The way the Cardinals Defense played Sunday, I’m kind of surprised they thought were allowed to hit the QB at all.

  4. Good for him. About time somebody asked the league why the defense can’t play defense half the time.

  5. The NFL takes the position of “Just don’t do it”. The best way to stay within the rules is to abstain from hitting them. Come on, I thought Goodell has made that pretty clear; don’t even cough at a QB.

  6. The problem and solution is pretty simple in my mind.

    The problem is that football is violent…shocking I know. Textbook legal hits can look violent, especially when its “bang-bang”. When a ref sees a hit that looks violent, especially on a QB, its almost always a flag, despite it being perfectly legal.

    The solution? Make penalties reviewable. Coaches get max 3 a game so they can’t blow them on every penalty that comes along and those roughing the passer, pass interference, defenseless receiver calls that can change the game become a nonfactor if the coaches choose to spend a challenge on it.

  7. No clarification needed. The rule is simple.
    A defensive player may hit the QB as hard as he wants, as long as he doesn’t lead with his head, have helmet contact, or his feet leave the ground.
    The only exception is to Brady and Manning, then a player may not touch him.

  8. You’re only allowed to hit QBs from small market teams. It’s still perfectly legal to punch Andy Dalton and Tarvaris Jackson in the face. And you can put Ryan Fitzpatrick in a sleeper hold.

  9. Threat them like receivers. Do not attempt to hit, knock down, push down, blow over, wrap up, or trip any player in possession of the football. Any attempt will do so will draw a 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down.

    Hope this helps,

    Roger Goodell

  10. The NFL rules are this: if you hit Peyton or Eli, then you get flagged, castrated and banned from playing in the NFL again. Any other QB can be tackled.

  11. Just like how it happened in baseball, QBs seem to have a shrinking strike zone.

    First, the strike zone was anywhere. Then it was below the head. Then it was above the knees. Now it’s below the shoulder, apparently.

    Eventually, it will only include a colored flag that protrudes from their belt.

  12. If this weekends games are any indication it looks like the league is actually gonna let them play. Qbs’ were hit often and I can’t recall any other flags other than the Cardinal game and that one looked bogus to me. To the chagrin of Bill Polian illegal contact looks like it has quietly been removed from the rule book. Then again Bill, it really doesn’t matter anymore does it? The players seemed to have learned not to lead with their helmets, clean hard hits and no flags. It’s nice watching games and not have to worry about big plays being called back because of some ticky tack roughing calls.

  13. Ken Whisenhunt, Really? So you are not focused on the fact that your defense allowed 450 yards of total offense to a Rookie. No instead you talk about a player leaving his feet to hit a QB and wondering what the rule is. Seriously? I don’t agree with the rule but you can’t leave your feet and launch at a QB whether you hit him in the helmet or not. Looking at his Cards D on Sunday, he has bigger worries then that though.

  14. jtbndy says: Sep 14, 2011 9:55 AM
    The solution? Make penalties reviewable. Coaches get max 3 a game so they can’t blow them on every penalty that comes along and those roughing the passer, pass interference, defenseless receiver calls that can change the game become a nonfactor if the coaches choose to spend a challenge on it.


    I agree to an extend. But only certain type of penalties. Not false start penalties or else the game would take forever. I do know that a few years ago in a Philly/Dallas game, someone on the Eagles (Might have been Quentin Mikell) was flagged for Pass Interference. The replay on TV showed that Mikell wasn’t even NEAR the play, and wasn’t within 2 yards of a receiver at any given time. There was simply no pass interference on the play. It gave Dallas the ball on the like, 4 yard line, when they were starting at their own 48 or something silly.

    They should also be able to make a judgement call on whether a ball is catchable or not. Nnamdi was called for PI on Sunday. It was negligible contact, but even without the contact, the ball would not have been caught. Why flag a guy for interference if he didn’t technically interfere with the catching of the ball?

  15. Here’s the rule, if your name is Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and you are so much as touched by a defensive player at anytime during a game it’s a personal foul.

    If your name is Mike Vick you can hit him after he throws the ball for up to 3 seconds after release. You can also slam him to the ground and dog pile on him. Mike Vicks helmet is fair game too. Also NFL approved moves are, but not exclusive to, body slams, suplexes, leg and/or elbow drops, a figure 4 leg lock, and rabbit punches while he’s down.

  16. AlanSaysYo says:Sep 14, 2011 9:58 AM

    You’re only allowed to hit QBs from small market teams. It’s still perfectly legal to punch Andy Dalton and Tarvaris Jackson in the face. And you can put Ryan Fitzpatrick in a sleeper hold.
    Post of the day. Well done!

  17. AlanSaysYo says:
    Sep 14, 2011 9:58 AM
    You’re only allowed to hit QBs from small market teams. It’s still perfectly legal to punch Andy Dalton and Tarvaris Jackson in the face. And you can put Ryan Fitzpatrick in a sleeper hold.

    * * * * *

    Apparently you have never seen a Steelers game. You can pull Roethlisberger’s helmet off, break his nose, or give him a purple nurple without getting flagged.

  18. Well Ken, there’s a formula –

    Revenue generated by qb (including ticket sales, merch, advertisements) + Points produced + likeability + owners membership status in the good ole boy network.


    hit-ability area of the quarterback (there’s a chart you can download from the NFL website that explains it all- you’ll need a password)

  19. I thought the question was – does a roughing the passer or any personal foul cancel out an Interception? Since the same penalty is tacked onto a long pass reception or run, and is not accepted or declined like a neutral zone infraction or PI.

  20. Basically the clear intent of the roughing the passer rule at this point is to prevent tacklers from using more force than necessary to bring the QB down.

    The days of hitting the QB hard in hopes of a loot pinata in the form of a fumble are gone.

    What Marshall did was to launch himself at Newton, leaving his feet to make the tackle. That’s no longer allowed under the roughing the passer rules.

  21. And consistancy among ref’s is a major factor when “judgement calls” come into it. One officiating crew is different then the next.

    This weekend I saw a receiver jump for a ball, arms extended exposing his ribs, he didn’t come down with the ball but as soon as his feet touched the ground he was leveled hard by the defender…no flag. I though that was a defensless receiver regardless of possession.

    And another penalty that needs to be fixed IMO is offensive holding. Now I understand theres always some degree of holding on every play, but when you have a DEnd coming around full speed and an OT practically has him bent in half backwards in a chokehold cuz he got beat and there’s a no call… shameful.

  22. What a joke “protecting” the QB has become. I understand safety and such, but this is FOOTBALL. Everyone, including the QB, is subject to violent contact from 300+ pound men. This is why they get paid MILLIONS of dollars to play a kids game. If you don’t want to get hit by 300+ pound men, don’t play football.

  23. Like most fans I am fed up with the NFL’s rulings on this and hope my favorite team uses their best player now to just take out the QB. Take the 15yd penalty and not worry about the fine. At least the wuss of a QB won’t be playing anymore in that game.

  24. Dear coach:

    The rule is quite simple, let me read it verbatim ” The only contact you are allowed to have with the quarterback is to rip either one of the flags he wears on his belt off”. Clear enough?


    Roger Goodell

  25. @bleedgreen

    I was thinking about limiting the types of penalties that can be reviewed as well, but I think the factor is taken care of with the limited amount of challenges a team gets.

    What’s to say a bad false start call on 4th and Goal from the 1 yard line wouldn’t impact the game greatly.

    Like I said earlier, they get at max 3 challenges a game. Obviously they won’t (or shouldn’t) waste them on standard offsides, false starts, holdings, etc. in the 1st quarter, but those can have a significant impact in the 4th quarter in a close game.

  26. There was another play in that game in which Joey Porter was literally tangled between Cam Newton’s legs. When most officials would have blown the play dead saying the QB was “in the grasp”, they chose to let the play continue. I believe the players on the field argued for an intentional grounding call, which was the wrong approach because the ball bounced at the feet of a nearby eligible receiver. But I’ve seen plays blown dead for even sniffing a nearby QB. Parody? What parody?

  27. For Everyone saying it falls under the launching rule, here are the facts…

    The expansion of the launching rules prohibits any use of the helmet, in addition to a player leaving feet prior to contact to spring forward into an opponent.

    All three measures passed by a 32-0 margin.

    UPDATE: Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe writes quarterback rule clarifies that only “forcible blows” to the head of the quarterback will be penalized, rather than just any contact at all. A rule defensive players will like!

    …so shoulder to shoulder contact would be allowed.

  28. @marinephinfan

    That’s yesterday’s game you are talking about.

    The 60’s were no holds barred.

    The 70’s were no low hits.

    The 80’s were in the grasp.

    The 90’s were no high hits.

    The 00’s were no horse collar.

    Today the game is being redesigned to take all intentionally violent play out, leaving just good technique and power as the allowable assets in play.

    Smashmouth football is a thing of the past. The NFL really wants 20+ games for their season in the end and the only way to make that happen is to make the game survivable for the players.

  29. At this point it is clear that the NFL is comfortable with the officials making these types of calls based on their own judgement. The unclarity of roughing the passer penalties, as well as defenseless receiver penalties will continue to leave coaches and players frustrated throughout the season. These types of penalties are no small matter seeing as they are 15-yard penalties. The calls have a major impact on field position and can truly effect the outcome of games.

    In the Eagles game this past weekend, Trent Cole was flagged for roughing the passer (hit below the knees). The rule was put into place when Von Oelhoffen dove at Carson Palmer’s knees in the ’06 playoffs. I have real issue with the call this past weekend because Cole was actually taken to the ground, he then reached up and grabbed Bradford around the ankles/shins. What is he supposed to do in that situation… lay on the ground and stare up at Sam??

    The NFL needs to sit the officials down and give a thorough explanation of how to enforce both roughing the passer, and hits on defenseless receivers. The conference should be broadcast to all players and coaches (maybe even fans) in an effort to get everyone on the same page. There MUST be a better system in place!

  30. The rule is clear:

    A defensive player may not make contact with the helmet of the opposing QB, unless he doesn’t make contact with said helmet upon tackling the QB, whereupon a 15 yard penalty will be called.

    A defensive player may tackle or strike the QB in the shoulder, unless he does strike the QB in the shoulder. A 15 yard penalty will be called, unless it isn’t, in which case the play was or was not illegal.

    A defensive player may not grasp the facemask of the QB, unless it is with one finger (sometimes), in which case it is not a penalty, unless it is; provided, however, that said finger does not sway the direction of the QB’s head, in which case a 15 yard penalty will be called; provided, further, that the QB’s head sways on its own, in the vicinity of a defender’s finger, shoulder or head, in which case a 15 yard penalty will also be called, unless it isn’t.

    What’s so hard to understand about all this?

  31. Big Ben got punched in the face by that dirty player Ngata, resulting in a broken nose, and repeatedly hit late by that cheap shot artist Suggs last year.

    No calls all game.

    Goodell is an incompetent boob.

  32. You’re only allowed to hit QBs from small market teams. It’s still perfectly legal to punch Andy Dalton and Tarvaris Jackson in the face. And you can put Ryan Fitzpatrick in a sleeper hold.

    Also, you may powerbomb Colt McCoy and Luke McCown.

  33. ref: “I just didn’t like the play, there is nothing you can do about it”
    Wise: “but what was it for? What did he do?”
    ref: “I told you, I’m in charge.”

  34. dohpey28 says: Sep 14, 2011 9:47 AM

    You can’t launch yourself, period. How hard is it to figure out?


    Uhhhhh, yeah you can. You just cannot launch yourself and hit the opposing player in the head or neck area.

  35. @melikefootball – I’m not sure what game you were watching. Miami didn’t have many chances to get within 5 feet of Brady. I’m not sure where all these “chances” to hit him were.

  36. “Big Ben got punched in the face by that dirty player Ngata, resulting in a broken nose, and repeatedly hit late by that cheap shot artist Suggs last year”

    the thing is about that hollywood is Ben’s a beast to bring down – it often takes several hits and/or several players to get him down. Theoretically you could probably have a bad hit called most of the times he’s tackled, so the only way to “protect” him is to start calling in the grasp –

    You really want to give up his playmaking ability just to protect his ugly mug?

  37. Whiz should know by now that since the Cardinals have 4 former Steelers coaches and several former Steelers players………………… enough said.

  38. The NFL office is turning Football in to a Sissy sport. If this continues look for Rugby to replace the NFL in the next 3-5 years.

    Why is it ok to hit in Rugby, Boxing 9maybe a bad example), wrestling (real , fake and Sumo). UFC, NASCAR and other sports but not in Football?

    This aint H.S. Football….Its part of the game!!! and the players know whats coming and they STILL sign the dotted line like all the other sports.

    Really???? Is the WWE and NASCAR going to have more hits (on their marque athletes) than the NFL????

    Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, Goodell. (McFly). Think!

    Wake up NFL office your going to loose $ and viewers!

  39. Unfortunatly there is nothing that our bitching on this, or any other, site.. or any coach or player complaints public or private, that will effect these changes to the game. Certian players will continue to get favorable calls over other players, ref’s will continue to blow games with bad calls or no calls. This cycle will not stop.

  40. Really puzzling. If you can’t hit Newton high and he is allowed to throw the ball while someone has him wrapped up low, the guy is going to get 400 yards every game. Panthers got a lot of help from the refs in that game.

  41. Is the NFL Good or what? Over the years they have put in so many unclear Rules that can be called either way from one play to the next “DEPENDING ON WHICH TEAM IT IS” that the Coaches do not even know what is or is not any longer.

  42. Everyone complains about the flags when the call goes against their team, but love the flags when the call goes against the opponent. One thing is abundantly clear….and that’s that passing records and scoring records are going to be broken as the rules continually are adjusted in favor of the offense in general, and the passing game in particular. Oh, and penalty yardage records will probably be broken too, with the never ending stream of ticky tack penalties that are called. For example, if a defensive back just grazes the arm of a receiver beyond 5 yards he’s called for illegal contact. The rules are fine, but the refs need to use some discretion. They should only call illegal contact if the DB actually impedes the receiver from catching the ball. In 90% of the cases where illegal contact penalties are called, the ball is uncatchable anyway.

  43. Ken Whisenhunt obviously doesn’t know how to read or he wouldn’t be asking the NFL to readthe rule book for him. Explains a lot on why he thought Derek Anderson could bring him wins last year.

  44. With the ref’s interpretations, the defensive player might as well try to take the QB out because he is going to get flagged anyway.

  45. Ruining the game. Get paid tons of money to play a violent game. If QB gets hit in the head, its a penality otherwise play the game and take your chances.

  46. Didn’t the Competition Committee put in something this year that also restricts contact to QBs (and punters) after a change of possession? I seem to remember people being up in arms that effectively it meant you’d probably get flagged for blocking a QB that threw in INT

  47. Yeah, that rule about contact to QBs after change of possession originated back in 2001, when Hugh Douglas was fined for flattening a Bears QB (can’t remember his name) on an interception return.

  48. I’m so glad someone other than a Steelers player finally said this. If James Harrison said the same thing word for word every comment would be derogatory towards him. It’s a valid point and the NFL needs to quit softening up the league or it’s going to have arena football scores before long.

  49. Officiating has become down right atrocious, but I blame two things….constant STUPID rule changes, and instant replay. It is easy to see the mistakes made now, when years ago you didn’t have that luxury. Also, the rules changes taking place are not well defined enough, and the league is to blame for that. The whole “going to the ground in the act of making a catch” is a good example. If a player jumps up, catches the ball, lands on both feet, and then falls down, he is NOT going to the ground in “the act” of catching the ball. But now, due to TERRIBLE rule writing and interpretation, if a player falls to the ground AFTER securing the catch, it is still considered “part of the process”. That’s hogwash, and so is the rules about not hitting a QB, and not hitting a “defenseless” receiver.

    Thanks, Goodell, for ruining the game I love.

  50. I don’t think it is so much the Coaches that need clarification, but the Refs, that I would swear at times bet on the games. There is no other explanation for a ref, 10 yards away, staring directly at the play and either ignoring a blatant penalty or calling a penalty when the isn’t one.

    It’s time to have penalties reviewed. These bad calls affect games outcomes and even have playoff implications. For the league to call a team 3 days later, as they did in the Detroit/Tampa game last season and say the official called the wrong pass interference call is stupid and intolerable. One bad call, of many gave the Lions the win, and the Packers a playoff birth, and we all know how that ended. Boo if you want, I don’t care.

  51. What is lost in this discussion is there were 3 plays like this in the game. There were actually two roughings, and a no call ‘in the grasp’ all of which had large impact on the game. I believe Cam will give the refs fits all years.

  52. Amazing that Whisenhunt would complain! Two years ago I didn’t hear that yowl of protest when Dansby almost kncoked Rodgers helment off and stole the game from the Packers in the playoffs!

  53. My problem with hits on the QB is that they are often moving in a way to avoid contact, and in turn the position of their head moves.

    I’ll give an example. Last year versus the Bears in game 1 Frank Zombo was flagged for a blow to the head on Jay Cutler. This reversed an INT that may very well have handed the game for the Packers. I see why the flag was thrown as his helmet did hit the bottom of Cutler’s facemask.

    However, it wasn’t like he was aiming for the head. As he was approaching Cutler he setup to make a solid hit to the back of Cutler’s shoulder or maybe hit him around the armpit on the side. Cutler feeling the pressure then opened up and twisted so he could get rid of the ball. While doing that, the bottom of his facemask was contacted while the force of the blow was right between the numbers. Flag down, INT overturned.

    And just so I’m not a homer, Rodgers has gotten similar calls. He has a tendency to jump and throw, or lean way back when releasing the ball and thus a clean hit turns into a blow to the chin or head.

    As a fan it’s infuriating to see games change on calls like this. If the defender clotheslines a QB or picks him up and drives him into the ground, yeah flag him…heck kick him out of the game for all I care. Just stop with the BS penalties.

  54. Slowly but surely Goddell is taking the football out of football. I truly hope someone will come in and undo his terrible overmanagement of the physical aspect of this game. To say nothing about not being able to celebrate scores, reviewing every TD, the absurd taunting rule…jeez. What a disaster this guy is.

    Maybe we should all be lawyers.

  55. There is no consistency with the ‘Brady’ rule. Brady, Manning 1, Manning 2, Brees and crybaby Rivers are all protected and the flag is dropped if you so much as look at them the wrong way. Roethlisberger gets punched in the head, nose broken, two low blows to the knee and nothing? Romo gets a cracked rib, Cutler gets driven into the ground, nothing? This penalty must be enforced consistently throughout the league. When a QB is hit illegally, and hurt, penalty, tossed from the game, fined and if the QB is out, the player who committed the infraction should be out as long as the injured player.

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