What is roughing the passer? It’s a straightforward question, but the NFL’s definition of this particular offense—and how it’s officiated—has rarely been consistent, changing seemingly each year and sometimes even from game to game. Washington pass-rusher Chase Young, recipient of last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, was whistled for roughing the passer on the Giants’ opening drive Thursday night at FedEx Field, the result of him falling on quarterback Daniel Jones after the ball had already been thrown.
The flag proved costly, setting up a first and goal opportunity from Washington’s eight-yard line. New York would score two plays later on a six-yard scramble by Jones.
Referee Scott Novak’s roughing the passer ruling (a second personal foul on Young would trigger his ejection) was obviously not well-received by Washington’s home fans, who flooded the stadium with boos (which, admittedly, is better than sewage). Observers on Twitter seemed to share in their skepticism, wondering what precisely Young did to warrant that infraction.
During last week’s season opener between the Cowboys and Buccaneers, longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy lamented how the NFL kowtows to star quarterbacks, arguing that football is “no longer a contact sport” for face-of-the-league Tom Brady. Jones is no one’s idea of a “star” or worthy of whatever perceived special treatment a player of Brady’s elite caliber might be subject to, but he is a quarterback and the NFL’s revised roughing the passer rule enacted in 2018 was aimed at protecting them at all costs.
As written in the league’s official rule book, “Once a pass has been released by a passer, a rushing defender may make direct contact with the passer only up through the rusher’s first step after such release (prior to second step hitting the ground); thereafter the rusher must be making an attempt to avoid contact and must not continue to ‘drive through’ or otherwise forcibly contact the passer; incidental or inadvertent contact by a player who is easing up or being blocked into the passer will not be considered significant.” Furthermore, “A defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.”
Officials tend to evaluate these calls on a case-by-case basis, but by the most literal of interpretations, not allowing for any leeway or nuance, the rule doesn’t leave much margin for error for players like Young, who are paid handsome sums to bother the opposing quarterback. If the penalty for Young—whose momentum was carrying him toward Jones—bear-hugging his opponent is half the distance to the goal, it begs the question, what CAN a defender do in that situation without getting flagged?
Regardless of whether Novak got it right by the letter of the law, online critics and proponents of the “let them play” aesthetic would seem to have a pretty valid argument in this instance.