GREEN BAY – The linebacker wrapped both arms around the quarterback, tackling just like he’d been taught as a kid. He turned as they tumbled to the ground, ensuring his body weight landed on grass instead of pads.
He didn’t lift the quarterback. Didn’t lead with his helmet. Didn’t hit him in the head. Didn’t hit below his knees.
None of it mattered. After the play, referee Tony Corrente threw a penalty flag. Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback who had just been hit, couldn’t believe it.
Somehow, a perfect-form tackle from Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks gave the Green Bay Packers another 15 yards late in Sunday’s first half.
“I don’t know many quarterbacks who want those calls,” Rodgers said. “There’s very few opportunities in the game for us to show any type of toughness. We’re not getting hit every play – hopefully not. The one on me, I don’t think that’s roughing the passer, either. There’s a goal to limit these hits, but they’re pretty obvious when you see them.”
“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.”
That Rodgers so bluntly denied Kendricks did anything wrong might get the NFL’s attention. Rodgers – and, specifically, the Aaron Rodgers Rule – is the reason the league has implemented roughing-the-passer penalties at a rate never before seen. When Vikings pass rusher Anthony Barr broke Rodgers’ collarbone last season on an unpenalized hit, the chain reaction altered how the game is played. The new reality culminated two quarters after Kendricks’ hit Sunday at Lambeau Field when Clay Matthews was called for roughing on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Matthews’ penalty might push the league’s roughing issue to the brink.
Clearly, something needs to change, but neither side is ready to concede. The NFL reportedly will send instructional videos of Matthews’ and Kendrick’ hits to teams throughout the league this week, examples of what not do to. The league’s message is clear: Change the way pass rushers are coached to hit the quarterback.
Matthews didn’t budge Wednesday – “I think we all know it was an incorrect call,” he said – and neither did his coach.
“We haven’t changed anything with the way we’re coaching our players,” Mike McCarthy said.
Further frustrating players, the NFL seems to be changing its definition.
If anything, Matthews’ hit on Cousins would seem to violate the NFL’s rule against defenders landing with their body weight on quarterbacks. Shortly after Sunday’s game, Corrente said the penalty was not connected to that rule. Instead, Corrente said Matthews was penalized for lifting Cousins before driving him into the ground.
On Monday, according to NFL.com, the league specifically identified Matthews’ “scoop-and-pull” technique as being a penalty, something Corrente did not mention in his postgame explanation.
“That’s frustrating, too,” Matthews said, “because you can’t just throw in new tactics and new rules as we’re going along with it. Everything that’s within that textbook of what to do as far as hitting the quarterback was checked off. Head across, within the strike zone, not putting body weight on them, rolling off – was checked off. So that makes it frustrating.
“It’s everything we’ve been taught since we were kids playing on defense. Nothing vicious about it. I know the rules talk about being vicious and doing extra stuff. There was nothing extra or physical intimidating about that hit.”
Around the league, coaches and players have come to Matthews’ defense. There’s a reason his hit resonated beyond Green Bay. Not only did it alter the outcome of a regular-season game, but it involved a 10-year veteran, a six-time Pro Bowler, one of the NFL’s most recognizable defenders.
If a game-altering penalty can be called on someone with Matthews’ credentials, it can be called on anyone.
Washington coach Jay Gruden was baffled over the Matthews penalty. He said Matthews did “everything right” on the play.
“These guys are big men,” Gruden said, “and they’re going at a high level of speed. To ask them to contort their bodies in the spur of the fraction of a second, sometimes it’s hard. You’re trying to wrap up mobile guys like Aaron Rodgers or big guys like Cam Newton or Carson Wentz, you’re putting these guys in a pickle.
“It’s just a tough deal but it’s something that we have to continue to monitor and coach and do the best we can.”
Matthews compared last week’s roughing call to the "Fail Mary" in Seattle, when replacement officials ruled what looked like a potential game-clinching interception in the end zone a game-winning touchdown reception. The league quickly settled its dispute with striking officials, restoring normalcy to game operations.
Similarly, Matthews said, he expects the NFL will find a balance with its roughing penalties as the season progresses. It already appears to have found consistency with its new rules against helmet-to-helmet contact, calling only plays it deems egregious. Part of the frustration, Matthews said, is the league hasn’t found that balance already.
Ideally, the preseason is time for overreacting to new rules and emphasis, so it doesn’t affect regular-season games.
What’s clear is at least one side will have to adjust, if not both. Fifteen weeks remain in the regular season. The Packers have 14 more games to play. And there’s no clarity on how to legal hit a quarterback. That will need to change, starting this week in Washington.
If not, the stalemate will continue.
“I think the biggest thing talking with Mike and other coaches,” Matthews said, “we can’t change a thing. Obviously that may not be the right thing to say, because something needs to change, but at the same time, you go down that checklist and you do everything the league wants you to do. That’s playing hard and playing the game the right way. So I don’t know.
“I just think moving forward you hope that the discussion helps officials (with) an official language change of the rule. You hope something like that happens. I think unanimously players, coaches, anybody involved is siding with the defensive guy here, which is normally not the case. Hopefully, that means we can get back to playing ball.”