Adventures in Officiating: What is roughing the passer, anyway?

On Monday morning, Eric Mangini, who coached Bill Belichick's secondary in New England and had head coaching jobs with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, said on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike Show" that the enormous inconsistency among officiating crews makes it very tough to tell players what to do. By failing to enforce a uniform standard among its officials, the NFL is actually making it more difficult for players to lay off those precious quarterbacks.

"That's the hardest thing you face as a defensive coach — when a guy gets a penalty and it's different, game in and game out, in the way that it's called," Mangini said. "There's such a level of subjectivity to it, you don't know what to tell the players. They're looking at you and saying, 'What do you want me to do differently?' and you don't have a good answer. That's what makes it almost impossible to correct.

"There's got to be some way to make it more uniform than it is, because you can't correct it. As much as you try to get your guys to do the right thing — we put a heavy emphasis on being a low-penalized team.  But when you can't come back to your player and say, 'This is what you did wrong — this is what you should do differently,' it's hard to have any legitimacy with a coaching point."

Well, let's look at the three most egregious roughing the passer calls of Week 7's Sunday, and we can see how "interesting" these calls have become. First, the penalty on Detroit Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch with 7:57 left in the second quarter of the Lions' 23-16 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons:

The difficulty on this play is one that the refs often miss — when a player is pushed or otherwise "influenced" into a quarterback, the flag isn't supposed to be thrown. We saw this in late September, when Seattle Seahawks end Raheem Brock was flagged for a shot at Ben Roethlisberger's knees that he found impossible to help, because Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert leg-whipped Brock into Roethlisberger. Part of the official's judgment call on roughing is supposed to be whether an offensive lineman pushed, tripped, blocked, or otherwise made it impossible for the defender to avoid the quarterback hit.

Now, when you watch Vanden Bosch beat this Atlanta double team (GREAT play by him, by the way), it certainly looks as if he's pushed back into quarterback Matt Ryan by left guard Justin Blalock (No. 63) as he splits the two blockers. There's some helmet contact, but again, when a defender is pushed in that direction, the rule about being pushed to the quarterback is supposed to supersede the helmet contact rule.

Next, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor gets a flag with 58 seconds left in the first quarter of Seattle's epically bad 6-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns. Neither team played well at all, but Mike Carey's officiating crew may have been the worst unit on the field.

This one is borderline at best — some will say that Chancellor hit Browns quarterback Colt McCoy in the back with his helmet; I will simply submit that there are plays in which there is incidental helmet contact based on the fact that the player leads with his shoulder, and there's simply no way for players to detach their heads from their shoulders at this point in time. Maybe Roger Goodell's working on that.

Chancellor does "lead with his helmet" as Jim Mora says on the telecast, but that's because his head is on top of his left shoulder, which is what he uses to hit McCoy. The helmet brushed McCoy's right arm — the very definition of incidental contact. Again, what is Chancellor (or any other defender) supposed to do? Somehow detach his head from his shoulders?

Also, kudos to Carey for getting the player's number wrong, and inadvertently calling the penalty on cornerback Walter Thurmond. We suppose he's quicker with the flags than with the flip charts.

And finally, the call that a lot of people are barking about Monday — the roughing the passer call on Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews that came with 8:23 left in the fourth quarter of the Packers' eventual 33-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

Oy vay. In the interest of brevity, I'll just quote Troy Aikman from the broadcast booth: "I don't know about that — I think that's a bad call." Well, to heck with brevity — let's take a closer look at this one. First of all, the play broke down completely. The intended receiver (Greg Camarillo) is creating his own option routes on the fly, and quarterback Christian Ponder has gone outside the pocket and outside the hashmarks.

In this case, the 2011 rule modification makes it clear: Ponder is not a defenseless player if he has clearly become a runner, or is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent. Now, the existing, pre-2011 rules also say that any quarterback in the process of making a throw is defenseless, which seems to be countermanded by the modified rule.

In this case, it doesn't really matter -- there is no clear indication that Ponder's going to throw the ball by the time Matthews launches himself (legally) at Ponder; this could have just as easily been a tackle, which is why the league doesn't generally call as many roughing penalties on mobile quarterbacks like Roethlisberger and Michael Vick. The NFL can't have it both ways if it wants to call these things cleanly and consistently — you either call roughing on running quarterbacks the same, or you do not.

What we hear a lot in defense of the officials is that they don't know what to call because the rules are so Byzantine. Well, if the rules are too tough, move aside for people who can interpret them correctly. Before the 2011 season started, the NFL sent different officiating crews out to all the team facilities to do seminars on the rules changes for the media. I attended the one at the Seahawks' facility, and I have to say the specific rules changes regarding quarterback contact were pretty straightforward.

Of course, it's different on the field — these are frequently bang-bang plays, and it's true that the league has told the officials to always err on the side of caution as it applies to the quarterback. But what we're not getting here is a consistent error rate — we're getting refs who are throwing flags on quarterback contact willy-nilly because they can, and because no real standard is apparently defined in a way that they must follow.

Until that changes, coaches and players will simply have to live with the frustration. There is no such thing as a straight roughing the passer call.

What to Read Next