Packers' Clay Matthews says NFL ‘getting soft’ after latest roughing penalty

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Sep 23, 2018; Landover, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) sacks Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith (11) in the third quarter at FedEx Field. Matthews received a roughing the passer penalty on the play. The Redskins won 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

LANDOVER, Md. - Clay Matthews didn’t care to hear referee Craig Wrolstad’s explanation Sunday. After the game, he marched over to Washington quarterback Alex Smith.

The veteran pass rusher needed the other perspective. He’d been called for roughing the passer a third straight week. For the second straight game, it was hard to see anything Matthews did wrong.

So Matthews asked the 14th-year quarterback the same question almost everyone else following the NFL wants to know: What else could he do?

“He just said, ‘You’re probably going to have to start going after the ball,’” Matthews said. “I don’t think he thought anything was wrong with the hit.”

Smith certainly wasn’t the only one.

Let’s be clear: Matthews’ roughing-the-passer penalty that nullified a 17-yard sack wasn’t why the Green Bay Packers lost 31-17 in Washington. There were plenty of self-inflicted reasons the Packers left the nation’s capital with their first defeat. Now 1-1-1, they have no shortage of issues to clean up before they host the suddenly resurgent Buffalo Bills next week.

Nor was Matthews’ penalty as significant as last week’s hit on Kirk Cousins. That call from referee Tony Corrente simultaneously erased a Packers victory and rocked the NFL. The league was so sensitive to the roughing-the-passer controversy, it released a tweet explaining why Matthews’ hit on Smith was a penalty. During the game.

When’s the last time you saw that?

But Wrolstad’s call might have been worse. At the very least, it struck to the core of how to play defense. Matthews beat Washington right tackle Ty Nsekhe inside, taking a frontal path to Smith. He lowered his helmet onto Smith’s shoulder to avoid contacting the head, wrapped both arms above his waist — last week, Matthews was called for wrapping Cousins’ legs — and unwrapped as soon as they hit the ground.

Whereas Matthews only put his left arm out to brace his fall against Cousins, he immediately rolled off Smith. Because he wasn’t holding onto Smith, he bounced off the quarterback like a trampoline.

It wasn’t enough to avoid penalty.

“That’s a football play,” Matthews said. “I hit him from the front, got my head across, wrapped up. I’ve never heard of anybody tackling somebody without any hands. When he gives himself up, as soon as you hit him, your body weight’s going to go on him. I think we’re looking for the hits that took Aaron (Rodgers) out last year, that little extra.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) reacts after being penalized for roughing against Washington Sunday, September 23, 2018 at FedEx Field in Landover, MD.

“If I wanted to hurt him, I could’ve. I could have put some extra on him, but that’s football. I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

There is irony that the Aaron Rodgers rule — emphasized and tweaked when Minnesota's Anthony Barr broke the Packers quarterback’s collarbone with a fall last season — has become the Clay Matthews rule.

He’s the first defender to be called for roughing the passer in each of the first three games in a season since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That’s the farthest their records go back.

The call on Matthews starkly contrasted with the lack of a penalty flag on Washington defensive lineman Daron Payne’s sack one possession earlier. Payne wrapped two arms around Rodgers and lifted him before flinging the Packers quarterback to the ground.

”I watched that on the sideline and said, ‘How come that’s not a flag?’” Matthews said. “We’re talking about — hey, let’s be honest — we’re talking about the MVP quarterback gets suplexed, that’s a good hit? But me, I put 250 pounds on a quarterback the right way, and here comes a flag.”

To most observers, the difference between Matthews’ hits on Cousins and Smith appears negligible. Matthews wrapped Smith higher than Cousins, but barely. He fell on the quarterback both times, though he immediately rolled off Smith.

Further confusing the issue are the postgame explanations from the referees. On a play that looks almost identical, Corrente and Wrolstad made different calls. While the issue last week was Matthews lifting and driving Cousins into the ground, this week he was called for the body-weight rule.

“I had judged that the defender landed on the quarterback when he was tackling him with most or all of his body weight,” Wrolstad said, “and that’s not allowed. If you do that, it’s roughing the passer. So that was basically my key, that he landed on him with most or all of his body weight, and that was my ruling, roughing the passer.”

Wrolstad said the body-weight rule isn’t new, which is true. For decades, defenders have not been allowed to maliciously drive their body weight onto quarterbacks. The rule’s language was tweaked this offseason, removing intent. Now, landing on the quarterback is a penalty whether it’s malicious or not.

Regardless, body weight is not new.

These calls certainly are.

The NFL entered Week 3 with 21 roughing-the-passer penalties already, up from nine in the first two weeks last season. Defenders are not suddenly landing on the quarterback with more frequency than in the past.

“I think there’s some gray here with this,” Smith said, “that needs to be ironed out.”

With the roughing penalty already costing the Packers a game this season, it’s easy to get lost in how the calls affect the Packers. The scope is much, much larger. It has become an issue for the league, fundamentally changing the game. That there seems to be no consistency has to enter the mind of every defender, not just players with a capital G on their helmet.

What cost the Packers a game one week might give them a win the next. Neither would be acceptable.

“Unfortunately,” Matthews said, “this league is going in a direction I think a lot of people don’t like. I think they’re getting soft. The only thing hard about this league is the fines that they levy down on guys like me who play the game hard.”



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