When did roughing the passer become a rule?


Nobody is ever happy with referees.

But during Week 5 of the 2022 NFL season, players, coaches and fans were all particularly upset with the officials. Throughout the week, there were several questionable roughing the passer calls – notably involving Tom Brady and Derek Carr – that left everyone scratching their head.

As a result of the controversies, NFL owners reportedly will meet in New York to discuss the topic. There aren’t expected to be any immediate changes to the call, however.

Here’s a look at the official rule, history and frequent offenders of roughing the passer:

What is roughing the passer in the NFL?

Roughing the passer was implemented with the intention of protecting the quarterback. Since these players are the most valuable – and particularly vulnerable – they are given this special protection.

To put it in the simplest terms, a penalty is called if a passer is, in the referee’s judgment, dealt an unwarranted hit that was avoidable by the defender. If a flag is thrown, it is a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the offense.

How does roughing the passer work?

There are eight rules for referees to follow in the official NFL rulebook to guide the roughing the passer penalty.

  1. “Roughing will be called if a pass rusher clearly should have known that the ball had already left the passer’s hand before contact was made.”
    • This gives the passer protection from being hit after releasing a pass, and the defender is responsible for attempting to avoid unnecessary contact. The defender is allowed one step after the ball is thrown.
  2. “A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as ‘stuffing’ a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball.”
    • This encourages defenders to wrap up the passer, rather than landing on him while making a sack or hit.
  3. “Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area.”
    • This ensures that any contact by the defender with the passer’s head or facemask will result in a penalty.
  4. “A defensive player is prohibited from clubbing the arm of a passer during a pass or just after a pass has been thrown; however, a defensive player may grasp, pull, or otherwise make normal contact with a passer’s arm in attempting to tackle him.”
    • This prevents the defender from taking a swing at the passer’s arm, though they can legally use the arm to make a tackle.
  5. “A rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee.”
    • Any shot at the passer’s knee is a penalty, and the only way a penalty won’t be called is if the defender is blocked into the passer and can’t avoid him.
  6. “A passer who is standing still or fading backward after the ball has left his hand is obviously out of the play and must not be unnecessarily contacted by an opponent through the end of the down or until the passer becomes a blocker.”
    • The passer has the opportunity to stay out of the play by assuming a defensive position, which protects him from any unnecessary contact.”
  7. “When the passer goes outside the pocket area, he loses the protection of the one-step rule provided for in (1) above, and the protection against a low hit provided for in (5) above, but he remains covered by all the other special protections afforded to a passer in the pocket (2, 3, 4 and 6), as well as the regular unnecessary roughness rules.”
    • The rules slightly change when the passer is outside of the pocket, as stated above. The passer still has some protections, but there is more freedom for defender’s trying to tackle a moving passer.
  8. “The referee must blow the play dead as soon as the passer is clearly in the grasp and control of any tackler behind the line, and the passer’s safety is in jeopardy.”
    • Another way to protect the passer, referees can say the passer was “in the grasp” and call the play dead before the defender tackles the passer.

Can you tackle a quarterback from behind?

Yes, a defender can tackle a quarterback from behind. But he has to be careful to avoid a roughing the passer penalty.

When tackling a passer to the ground, the defender must avoid landing his full body weight on the passer.

Here’s an example of Chiefs defender Chris Jones landing on Carr with his full body weight, and being flagged on Monday Night Football:

And here’s the correct way, by the NFL rulebook, to sack a passer without being flagged:

Notice how Patriots defender Matthew Judon took down Tua Tagovailoa without landing his body weight on the Dolphins’ quarterback. That’s the distinction that NFL referees look for.

When was roughing the passer implemented?

Roughing the passer was implemented in 1940, according to the NFL rulebook. It was obviously enforced a lot differently back then, but the rule was born at that time.

The league made a number of changes by 1940, including the 15-yard roughing the passer penalty. Around this time, passing became a bigger part of the game as the league legalized passing from any point behind the line of scrimmage and removed penalties for multiple incomplete passes in the same series of downs.

Over the course of the last 82 years, there have been tweaks to the official wording of the penalty. But the most recent notable change came in 2018. That’s when the league emphasized the “body weight” rule that prohibited the defender from landing with his full weight, as we saw with Jones and Carr in Week 5.

Who has the most roughing the passer penalties?

Since 2009, NFLPenalties.com has been tracking which quarterbacks have most benefited from roughing the passer penalties.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, has been “roughed” the most since 2009, with 56 flags thrown to benefit him – including 10 in 2021. Ryan Fitzpatrick (52), Matthew Stafford (40), Aaron Rodgers (38) and Ryan Tannehill (38) are the other quarterbacks who have most benefited from these flags.

The total numbers might say more about the quarterback’s longevity rather than their penalty-drawing prowess, though. In terms of roughing-per-game stats, Fitzpatrick (0.35 penalties per game) and Josh McCown (0.35) stand above the rest. Josh Allen (0.33), Carson  Wentz (0.33) and Robert Griffin III (0.30) round out the top five in per game penalties drawn.

So, despite what you might see on social media, Brady hasn’t benefited more than anyone else from roughing the passer. It’s often mobile quarterbacks, or gunslingers who try to extend plays, that get the benefit of this call. Pocket passers like Brady (0.14 penalties per game), Peyton Manning (0.05) and Drew Brees (0.16) don’t reap the rewards as often.

In terms of defenders, the Texans’ Maliek Collins and Chargers’ Joey Bosa led the league with four roughing the passer penalties in 2021. Since 2009, former Dolphins defender Olivier Vernon holds the record for most penalties in a season with five in 2015. Through five games this season, there have been 25 accepted roughing the passer penalties with no defender being flagged more than once – down from 48 accepted penalties through Week 5 last season, per NFL Research.

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