From time to time, the controversy regarding roughing the passer calls that actually are, as Chris Simms calls them on PFT Live, “nothing the passer” subsides, with no flags flying for otherwise legitimate physical contact with a quarterback.
And then it happens. A play that causes football fans to wonder whether the sport is still football.
On Sunday night, Dolphins pass rusher Jaelen Phillips sacked Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. It looked fine. Referee Scott Novak disagreed, flagging Phillips.
Novak, who wasn’t questioned by a pool reporter after the game, likely would say he thought that Phillips fell on Herbert with his body weight. But, at some level, that’s what a tackle is. One body falls onto another one.
There was nothing from Phillips that seemed to suggest he didn’t try to brace his fall or that he did try to inflict some sort of physical indignity on Herbert. Nevertheless, a penalty was called.
Tweeted Phillips after the game: “If I’m about to be fined $15,000 for ‘roughing the passer’ then there needs to be some accountability and a review of what constitutes that penalty.”
We’ll throw in another wrinkle. As a league source told PFT earlier this year, there will be an offseason push to make roughing the passer calls subject to replay review.
The league has pushed back against the possibility of taking replay back to the realm of the quasi-subjective, citing its horrendous failure to properly handle replay review of pass interference calls and non-calls in 2019 as the justification for it. But the fact that the league bungled replay review of pass interference should never be a shield against any expectation that it properly implement replay review of other calls.
Moreover, roughing the passer is one of the rare rules that instructs referees to lean on the side of throwing a flag. “When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the referee should always call roughing the passer,” the rulebook states.
Earlier this year, when the nothing-the-passer controversy reached critical mass, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent appeared on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown and linked the league’s “when in doubt” approach to maximizing TV viewership of games.
“It’s a different game today,” Vincent said. “It’s a safer game today. It’s a better game today. . . . Ninety-one of the top-100 shows last year on television were NFL games. Why? Because of the quarterback play. They want to see points and scores. I think we all have an appreciation. If you don’t have a QB, you don’t have a chance to win. As a defender I knew that, you can’t score points, you can’t win.”
A team can’t win a game, and the NFL can’t win the broader game of getting the most possible people to watch.
Setting aside whether the good of the game should take a backseat to the good of the business of the game, the deeper issue isn’t whether replay review is available or whether the referee should be accountable. It’s whether the “when in doubt” language should be removed from the rule.
If it isn’t, then replay review absolutely should be available to fix any situations in which the doubts of the referees weren’t warranted.