GREEN BAY – Freeze the frame, and it’s a textbook tackle. Clay Matthews didn’t hit Kirk Cousins late. He didn’t hit the Minnesota Vikings quarterback high, striking the middle of his chest. He didn’t hit Cousins with his helmet, leading instead with his shoulder.
By rules that have been enforced for years now, there was nothing the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker did wrong at first contact.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Matthews said. “Did I put pressure on him? I thought I hit him within from his waist to chest, got my head across, put my hands down.”
Except after Matthews peeled himself off Cousins, then walked a couple steps to celebrate what he thought was a big, early-season win, the veteran pass rusher noticed a penalty flag behind him.
It was déjà vu all over again. A week earlier, Matthews’ roughing-the-passer penalty gave the Chicago Bears a second chance. The Packers held then, but couldn’t do the same Sunday against the Vikings.
Matthews was apoplectic, waving his arms as he tried to argue his case. He said referee Tony Corrente offered no explanation on the field.
The penalty didn’t lead to a loss. It did cost the Packers a win, erasing rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander’s game-clinching interception. In a conflicted postgame locker room, as players tried to digest their 29-29 tie, there was something they universally agreed upon.
The NFL’s current roughing-the-passer rules confuse everyone.
“How they make that (expletive) call on Clay?” one player asked a teammate, still in disbelief.
“That was (expletive),” the teammate answered.
Matthews, who admitted fault after last week’s roughing penalty against the Bears, was left feeling helpless Sunday.
“You know, OK, the one last week was late,” Matthews said. “That’s shame on me. A 10-year vet shouldn’t get those kind of penalties. For it to happen again, if you aren’t being biased, I think it was a legal hit. You can’t help but think if you didn’t have that call, how does this game go?
“At the same time, you’re bewildered as far as what to think, what to do, how to feel. That’s frustrating, no doubt about it. We’ll see moving forward.”
The question isn’t whether contact was late, but how he landed.
As gravity took over, Matthews’ inertia carried him on top of the quarterback. Defenders are taught now to roll off the quarterback. Matthews didn’t.
If Matthews was called for landing with his body weight on Cousins, the penalty would be no easier for Packers fans to swallow.
It at least would have fit the league’s current rules.
Where the penalty gets perplexing is in referee Corrente’s explanation. Corrente said Matthews wasn’t penalized for landing on Cousins.
“It has nothing to do with the rule of full body weight,” Corrente said.
Instead, Corrente saw Matthews’ roughing penalty differently than just about anyone else.
“When he hit the quarterback,” Corrente explained, “he lifted him and drove him into the ground.”
Replay from the front side — opposite Corrente’s view — shows Cousins jumping as he heaved a pass deep downfield. He was in the air when Matthews hit him. Matthews appears to drive through Cousins, not lifting him.
On the back side — Corrente’s view — Matthews’ left arm grabs upward on Cousin’s right leg. It looks like a form tackle in slow motion, Matthews simply wrapping up. In Corrente’s judgment, the upward motion of Matthews’ arm might have looked like lifting instead of merely wrapping.
Defensive lineman Kenny Clark, who had one sack Sunday, said the call goes against how players are instructed to tackle.
“When you’re tackling somebody,” Clark said, “you’re taught to (stay on) your feet, put your head to the side and wrap up. And however that guy goes down, that’s how he goes down. It’s kind of tough.
“I don’t know if they want us to twirl our body while we’re tackling the guy. That’s kind of putting us in a dangerous position. I don’t know.”
Whether Matthews indeed lifted Cousins is debatable. What’s clear is the NFL’s roughing-the-passer penalty can be as subjective a call as any in sports, comparable to the block-charge rule in basketball. There are times when the call is obvious: a defender leads with his helmet, or smacks the quarterback’s head, or hits the passer late.
Often, the play leaves players, coaches, fans — and, yes, media too — guessing. It’s as bewildering as the league’s catch rule ever was. It also drastically changes the game.
Perhaps the best example came from defensive lineman Mike Daniels in the second half. Daniels had an easy sack, beating Vikings right guard Mike Remmers. He let up when Cousins pump faked.
His hesitation allowed Cousins to scramble for 1 yard, avoiding a big sack.
“If I wrap him and take him down,” Daniels said, “Remmers is already on me. Remmers is going to fall on me, then I fall on the quarterback, and now it’s 15. And now it’s like, ‘Oh, Mike, you’re an idiot.’ So I don’t know. Who knows.
“It’s just trying to be smart without losing my aggression, and you just don’t know.”
Daniels thought he might be called for a penalty on the Vikings’ game-tying touchdown inside the final minute. He lunged and wrapped up Cousins slightly below the waist. Cousins, who was stepping into his throw to receiver Adam Thielen, doubled over from the force of the blow.
A defender isn’t allowed to hit quarterbacks at the knees. Daniels’ hit was higher than the knees, but it was close enough for him to anticipate a penalty flag.
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“I was fearing for my life on the one he threw a touchdown,” Daniels said. “I didn’t know it was a touchdown at first, but I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I hit this guy at his waist. They might call me for hitting him in the knees.’ And I said, ‘Kirk, man, I was not trying to hit your knees.’
“He said, ‘I know you weren’t.’ It’s tough.”
The biggest frustration, one Packers player said, was that such a subjective call was made with the game on the line. The Packers led 29-21 when Matthews’ hit forced Cousins to overthrow receiver Stacy Coley, allowing Alexander to run under the football for an easy pick.
The game was over. The Packers won.
Somehow, the Vikings escaped without a loss.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Matthews said, “to be completely honest with you. I have so many emotions running through as far as what a terrible call it was. At the same time, I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know. You let me know. You tell me.
“The worst part is, we’ll probably send it in and you know what they’re going to say? They’ll find fault on me because they’re going to agree with the refs. I don’t know. It’s a difficult call to call. You see how it changed the game. I know there’s an emphasis on protecting quarterbacks, but it’s gotten out of control.”