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Thursday, October 27, 2011
Dirty Laundry: Judgment in roughing calls

By Kevin Seifert

Some officiating calls are as direct and objective as they can be. A receiver steps out of bounds. A defender grabs a facemask. A running back's knee touches the ground.

Many, however, are subjective and require officials to match the action with a set of rules that doesn't address every specific instance. Officials must make a real-time decision about what they saw and how it applies to the general standards of the NFL, usually without the benefit of a possible replay challenge.

Clay Matthews
Clay Matthews was penalized for this hit on Christian Ponder.
Roughing the passer falls squarely into the latter category, especially as the league has attempted deep regulation of the contact quarterbacks can receive. Every week of the NFL season includes some debatable roughing calls, or non-calls, and we had at least two in Week 7 here in the NFC North.

The first came in the second quarter of the Detroit Lions' 23-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Referee Bill Leavy called Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, resulting in a first down after an incomplete third-down pass.

Vanden Bosch vehemently protested, pointing at the replay as it was shown at Ford Field. A review of the play shows that Vanden Bosch might not have initiated much helmet-to-helmet contact. But he at least inadvertently hit Ryan's neck/chest area with the top of his helmet and facemask, which technically violates NFL rules.

Here is the applicable language straight out of the NFL's 2011 rule book: "A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture for example, (a) forcibly hitting the passer's head or neck area with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him, or (b) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/"hairline" parts of the helmet against any part of the passer's body."

In this case, it was up to Leavy to determine whether Vanden Bosch's hit qualified as "forcible contact." Given that both Vanden Bosch and Ryan fell to the ground as a result, I can see why Leavy decided it was.

The second play came in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game at the Metrodome. Referee Peter Morelli called Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews for roughing against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. A second look at the play, as well as the photograph accompanying this post, shows Matthews in a textbook tackling position with his helmet clearly to the side of Ponder's body just after the release.

Part of that form was to grab the back of Ponder's legs. In the course of leaning forward to complete the throw, Ponder left his feet. The force of contact with Matthews drove Ponder onto his back.

It might have looked like a standard football play to you and I and even Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who was broadcasting the game and objected to the call. But check out how the NFL rule book addresses such a situation:

"When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender's weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up or cradle the passer with the defensive player's arms."

Remember: This part of rule enforcement is subjective. It was up to Morelli to decide whether Matthews "unnecessarily" or "violently" threw down Ponder and/or landed on top of him with most of his weight. Morelli also needed to judge if Matthews made an effort to "wrap up or cradle" Ponder to break his fall, as anti-football as that might seem.

Given the NFL's emphasis on quarterback safety, it's not surprising that Morelli leaned toward Ponder on that play. I don't think Matthews intended to drive Ponder to the ground, but that isn't the question. Did he drive Ponder to the ground? Morelli's judgment was that he did.

On to our Penalty Tracker: