A recording of the Buffalo Bills’ next two opponents playing each other is shown on monitors this week in the locker room, the unusual result of the game overshadowed by a single, increasingly familiar call.
The Green Bay Packers are leading the Minnesota Vikings, 29-21, with less than two minutes remaining in regulation last Sunday, when Packers linebacker Clay Matthews hits Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins with what seems like textbook technique, as he’s releasing the ball. It’s intercepted by cornerback Jaire Alexander, essentially sealing the victory.
But a yellow penalty flag for “roughing the passer” lands on the turf, gifting the Vikings a fresh set of downs they would use to score the game-tying touchdown. A week later, the reverberations are still rippling through the NFL, which has doubled down on the call, not only upholding it as correct, but reportedly including the play in an instructional video sent to teams.
“I don’t know what guys are supposed to do,” said Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, a 13-year veteran and the most experienced player in the building. “They’re trying to legislate contact out of football and there’s some things you just can’t.”
Faced with declining television ratings and increased scrutiny about the long-term dangers of concussions, the NFL is attempting to ratchet down the violence in the name of player safety, in an effort to keep marquee players on the field. The focus is on protecting quarterbacks, the league’s brightest stars and biggest money makers.
Among other changes this offseason , the NFL added a 15-yard penalty for players who lower their helmet to initiate contact with it against an opponent. They’ve also asked officials to increasingly enforce a rule, already on the books, about “unnecessarily or violently throwing down” the quarterback or “landing on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.”
But none of these issues seemed to apply to Matthews’ hit on Cousins, whom the Bills face Sunday in Minnesota.
Matthews did not use his helmet, but his shoulder to hit Cousins in the midsection. He did not hit him late. He wrapped him up, and while falling – and at some risk to his own well-being – even appeared to extend his left arm to brace Cousins from impact with the ground.
After the game, veteran referee Tony Corrente explained why he threw the flag.
“He lifted him and drove him into the ground,” Corrente said in an interview with a pool reporter.
“It has nothing to do with the rule of full body weight. It has nothing to do with helmet to helmet. He picked the quarterback up and drove him into the ground.”
But the video replay does not corroborate what Corrente described.
“Shocking,” Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes called it.
“Ridiculous,” safety Jordan Poyer said.
“A garbage call,” defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said.
“This (expletive’s) going to be two-hand touch in a couple of years,” defensive end Shaq Lawson said.
"I don't know even know where to start to be completely honest with you," Matthews told reporters after the game. "I have so many emotions running through as far as just what a terrible call it was. But at the same time, I don't know what else to do. I mean, I don't know. You let me know."
Even the Packers' and Vikings' quarterbacks seemed surprised.
“I'm sure it was probably a generous call,” Cousins told NBCSports.com’s Peter King, “and two or three years ago, it probably doesn't get flagged."
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose team benefitted earlier in the game from a roughing call on Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, outright questioned the league’s approach.
“There's a goal to limit these hits, but they’re pretty obvious when you see them – you know, a guy picking somebody up and full weight on them,” Rodgers told reporters earlier this week in Green Bay. “What do you say to Clay? His head is out of it. His hand is on the ground. That’s not roughing the passer. Same thing with Kendricks. What do you say to him on that? I didn’t get up off the ground thinking, ‘Where's the penalty?’ I saw a late flag and couldn’t believe there was a penalty on the play.”
We’re at the point where a star quarterback feels bad for defensive players.
TALE OF THE TAPE
The Bills watch the league’s weekly instructional videos each Saturday.
Narrated by Al Riveron, the league’s senior vice president of officiating, the purpose of these videos is to ensure coaches and players remain aware of what is and what is not considered a penalty.
They’re often magnets for criticism.
“Just like every instructional video they send every week, there’s always something that guys are like, ‘What the …? Like, no way,’” Poyer said. “Half the time the helmet-to-helmet things that they call (aren’t penalties), and then when they send the instruction videos, they don’t even show the result of the actual play that the ref had flagged.
"Sometimes in the instruction video, Al Riveron will be like, ‘Yes, this should not be called a helmet-to-helmet call.’ But then you look back on the tape, a ref was throwing the flag. And so somebody must not be on the same page. It’s kind of frustrating.”
Penalties for roughing the passer have spiked.
Last season, there were 105 penalties for roughing the passer, according to Pro Football Reference.
This season, there have been 21 through two weeks, putting the league on pace for 168, an increase of nearly 63 percent.
The Bills have not been called for roughing the passer in the first two games.
Longtime official Terry McAulay, who retired this offseason to become a rules analyst for NBC Sports, discussed the call during an interview on King’s podcast, describing it as one he “couldn’t imagine making” in his 17 years as a referee.
But he stopped short of calling it an error in judgment by the official. He described sitting in a meeting with 17 officials this offseason, before retiring, and voicing his concern about flagging plays that have never been a foul. He recounted being told not to call a penalty if he didn’t believe it to be one in real time.
“I would call some of them plays that I would have never even dreamed of reaching for a flag,” McAulay said, “because they just were football plays. They were normal, legal, form tackles, shoulder to the chest, shoulder to the midsection, and then the players ended up on the ground. ... there was nothing to it other than a good, hard, solid football hit …”
"There are two fundamental principles of rules making. No. 1 is player safety. No. 2 is maintaining a balance between offense and defense. I think college football has lost that No. 2 and if the NFL's not careful, they're going to lose it."
Former NFL officiating chiefs Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira, both now working as rules analysts for FOX, were united in their criticism.
“Those are not fouls. We don’t like those as fouls,” Blandino said on their weekly show, Last Call.
“What I’m having a problem with now,” Pereira said, “even though it’s a point of emphasis, is they’re creating penalties for contact and tackles that to me don’t put the quarterback at risk of injury…
“I just think we’re setting a dangerous precedent, because to me, as big a call as that was, at the end of the Green Bay-Minnesota game, to me it’s just you can’t have that as a foul. There’s got to be a line drawn somewhere closer to a more violent hit.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott said he appreciates the NFL’s instructional videos as a tool to get his players and staff on the same page with the league office.
But he described the roughing call on Matthews as “tough.”
“Player safety is of the utmost importance in what we do,” McDermott said. “I also believe in consistency after that. Let’s have some consistency from one game to the next around the league in the way things are going. That’s from a coaching standpoint. Certainly, the officials, they’re human and they have a very difficult job. I understand that. After that, we’ve got to find some consistency.”
What’s the takeaway from the video of Matthews’ hit on Cousins?
How can coaches adjust what they’re coaching and players adjust their technique to avoid a roughing the passer penalty?
Nobody seems sure.
“It’s getting really hard to play defense in the NFL,” Hughes said. “After my sack on Philip Rivers, you want to kind of celebrate and be in the moment with your teammates, but you’re also in the back of your mind looking around for a flag, because you don’t know – you may have hit the quarterback too hard or you may have brought him down too roughly in the officials’ eyes.
“As if it isn’t hard enough to get down a quarterback who’s throwing the ball in 2.3 seconds and fight off a 330-pound offensive lineman while getting there, you also have to now take him down with grace.”
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a 12-year veteran, said he’s more aware of overly strict officiating when he gets around the quarterback.
He doesn’t want to hurt the other player, or his team, or his wallet, in the event of a fine.
“Just play fast and if it happens, it happens, and you just go through the appeal process,” Alexander said. “But you can’t slow down and hurt yourself, or if it’s a guy like Cam (Newton) or Ben (Roethlisberger), just let go and they throw for a big play or run for a first down. You definitely don’t want that to happen. So sometimes you have to live with the consequences of rules that are intended to benefit quarterbacks.
“I’m not going to try to destroy him because I know those rules are there,” Alexander said, “So you come in high, wrapping him up, trying to strip the ball versus trying to lay him out. But if you have to do it, you have to do it. If you’re trying to scratch and claw to get to him, sometimes it’s just unavoidable contact, where you’re just trying to make a play.”
Coaches can live with penalties for being aggressive, as opposed to penalties for being stupid, players said.
The Bills agreed that coaches and players are all making a concerted effort to play by the rules.
“They teach us ways not to land on a quarterback,” Lawson said. “But I’ve seen a lot of personal fouls I didn’t think were personal fouls. They’re making the game weak, man.
“I feel like as soon as you hit a quarterback, you better just do this,” Lawson said, putting hands in the air to indicate innocence. “That’s how I feel. The first game, I did that, too. I just put my hands up when I didn’t even touch him, because you don’t know what they’re going to call these days.”
Lotulelei was concerned about defensive players’ well-being, citing Matthews outstretched arm as he attempted to break the fall after his hit on Cousins.
“As defenders, when you get into position to make a play on a quarterback, now we have to kind of contort our body to protect him,” Lotulelei said. “How does that make sense? We go out of our way – we could hurt ourselves potentially trying to do something like that, just trying to prevent the quarterback from getting hurt…
“It was a clean hit. It’s not like he hit him in the head. He went low, wrapped him around and just leaned on him. To me, I thought it was garbage. I don’t agree with the call, and I’m sure there’s going to be plenty more like it this year. And there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s just nothing we can do about it. We have to adjust as defenders. We just have to make adjustments. I don’t know how to do that.”