NFL hits new low with flag on Clay Matthews sack

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Defensive players in the NFL can’t hit the quarterback in the head.

They can’t hit them in the legs.

They can’t hit them too late.

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They can’t wrap them up and drop them.

Now, they apparently can’t land on top of a quarterback during a sack, either.

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews reacts to his penalty after tackling Redskins quarterback Alex Smith. (AP)
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews reacts to his penalty after tackling Redskins quarterback Alex Smith. (AP)

This is how embarrassing it has become for NFL officials, who flagged Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews for roughing the passer (again) during a sack of Alex Smith in Sunday’s 31-17 loss against the Washington Redskins. It’s the second time in two weeks Matthews has drawn a personal foul for hitting a quarterback during a sack, including a nonsensical flag for “lifting” and “driving” Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins into the ground on Sept. 16.

If the flag for Matthews’ hit on Cousins drew some grousing, the one against Smith should draw nothing less than unfiltered fury. Because it orbits one central theme: The increasingly complicated algorithm involved in legally taking down an NFL quarterback with any level of force. What was once as simple as addition or subtraction for pass rushers has become calculus, all geared in favor of a quarterback position that has seemingly gotten every last rule tweak to remove it from the violence of football.

Now the league is training defenses with a new message: If you hit a quarterback, don’t hit him hard.

Matthews after the game: ‘They’re getting soft’

But even in this era where the game is continually softened for the quarterbacks, Sunday’s flag on Matthews was a new low. Not only did the Packer appear to execute a textbook sack on Smith, he immediately let go of the quarterback and rolled away with his hands in the air, as if to beg officials to keep their flags at bay. But they flew anyway, apparently because Matthews gripped Smith’s jersey as he sacked him and then landed on top of him. That violated the “driving the quarterback into the ground” threshold and the flags flew, leaving Matthews to crouch down and stare at the ground in disbelief.

His reaction after the game:

We’re all Clay Matthews right now because there is no way to tell what force or technique should have been used to subdue Smith, who is 6-foot-4 and somewhere between 215-220 pounds. Perhaps Matthews should have just pushed him down with two hands, like two-middle schoolers hashing out their differences at recess.

Everyone should take note when it comes to this kind of officiating, too. This is what years of riding officials and nitpicking hath wrought. You simply can’t hit quarterbacks too hard anymore. It’s just not worth it. The standard is too uneven. And the NFL is always going to protect the official who protects the quarterback.

Protect the QB at all costs

Some will look at this and say it’s the byproduct of a new era of health and safety in the NFL. And the league will be excited to have it framed that way. But in truth, it’s a product of the league protecting the No. 1 most-marketable asset driving the popularity of the game: Quarterbacks. Because linebackers don’t pay the bills at the Park Avenue offices. They don’t draw in the massive television contracts. Very few franchises can build season-ticket campaigns around franchise linebackers. QBs are the meal tickets. And if there is anything the league has figured out over the past few years, it’s that you don’t abuse the meal ticket.

If you have any question about that, look at the ratings and follow-up coverage of Thursday’s night’s comeback win by the Cleveland Browns. The next 24 hours became a ticker-tape parade for Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was trending atop every social media platform and dominating national sports talk. The league notices things like that. Especially when it’s a moment that involved one of the most moribund franchises in the fraternity.

QB Baker Mayfield was the king of Ohio for a night after helping lead the Browns to their first victory since Dec. of 2016. (Getty Images)
QB Baker Mayfield was the king of Ohio for a night after helping lead the Browns to their first victory since Dec. of 2016. (Getty Images)

For the NFL, that kind of quarterback glorification is worth protecting at any cost. Whether it’s Mayfield or any other potential franchise centerpiece lining up behind the center. The league has learned this is the position that sells the NFL in the most lucrative way possible. Think of 2018’s top moments. Who have been the most memorable players through three games? What did we talk about all offseason?

We had Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on one leg against the Chicago Bears. We’ve had Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes playing hotter than the surface of the sun. We’ve spent weeks talking about the return of Carson Wentz, which came after an offseason of constantly updating the status of Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts. And what story has been bigger in New England than the constantly speculated future of Tom Brady and how he’s feeling about his place in the Patriots franchise?

This is what sells the NFL. It’s what people will remember in the long term. It’s why the NFL will stay relevant and profitable. Two years from now, nobody outside of Green Bay will be talking about that one time Clay Matthews got hit with an embarrassing flag. And even inside Green Bay, the NFL story of 2020 will have something to do with Aaron Rodgers.

The league knows that. So it makes bloated protectionism of the quarterback a part of the mission statement. And each season, the product gets more wide-open, more tilted toward fantasy stats, and closer to an era where the violence in the sport is something quarterbacks simply witness, rather than experience.

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