The NFL’s weekly news releases are practically bursting with excitement about how the 2018 season has begun.
Patrick Mahomes! Ryan Fitzpatrick! More touchdown passes than ever! New records for quarterbacks!
But there’s one significant factor accounting for the NFL’s offensive largesse this year — the officials.
The NFL has taken its emphasis on protecting the quarterbacks to new heights this year, with the officials keeping close watch on defensive players landing on quarterbacks with their full body weight.
What the NFL doesn’t advertise is that roughing the passer penalties have increased significantly. There have been 21 such penalties through two weeks, up from just nine at this point last year.
The 2017 season saw a record of 107 roughing the passer penalties called, per NFLpenalties.com. This year, the league is on pace for 168.
Sure, offensive production has exploded through two weeks. The NFL has seen records for touchdowns (174), touchdown passes (114), passer rating (92.6), completions (1,516), and completion percentage (65.3 percent). The 1,506 points scored are second-most all time (2012).
And the NFL was thrilled to promote Week 2 as a smorgasbord of offensive production. The 65 passing touchdowns tied the record for most in a week (Week 15, 2015). More than half of quarterbacks (17 of 32) compiled a passer rating over 100, the most ever in a week. A whopping six QBs completed more than 80 percent of their passes, also a record. More points means more excitement, and more action for gamblers and fantasy football fans.
But it’s coming at the expense of defensive players, who are getting flagged 15 yards and slapped with $20,054 fines for hits that don’t even seem to violate the rules.
This penalty emphasis came to a head last Sunday in Green Bay, when Clay Matthews was penalized for roughing the passer late in the fourth quarter on Kirk Cousins, negating a Packers interception that would have sealed the game and giving the Vikings new life. Matthews hit Cousins in the midsection and brought him to the ground, and didn’t land with his full body weight on Cousins.
“He picked the quarterback up and drove him into the ground,” referee Tony Corrente said after the game.
Head of officiating Al Riveron not only agreed with Corrente’s call at first, he reportedly was going to include it in his weekly teaching video. But when the video was released Friday, there was no mention of Matthews’s hit, and Riveron has not said anything publicly about the penalty.
Matthews was not fined for the hit, either, suggesting that the NFL came to its senses. Because not one person outside the NFL has agreed with it. Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira, two former heads of NFL officiating now working for Fox Sports, disagreed with the call vehemently.
“What do you want the defender to do?” Blandino said on his weekly show with Pereira. “To me, it looks like he’s wrapping and he’s trying to bring the quarterback to the ground. There is going to be some force. There is going to be some impetus that takes both players to the ground. Again, what do you want the defender to do in that situation?”
“We’re setting a dangerous precedent,” Pereira added. “You can’t have that as a foul. There’s got to be a line drawn closer to a more violent hit.”
Cousins acknowledged after the game that he knows the officials gave him a huge break.
“I’m sure it was probably a generous call,” he told NBC’s Peter King, “and two or three years ago, it probably doesn’t get flagged.”
And NFL players and coaches alike have become flummoxed about what exactly they can do that won’t be penalized.
“I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know,” said Matthews. “I thought I hit him within his waist to chest, I got my head across, put my hands down. To call it at that point in the game is unbelievable.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer relayed an interesting conversation last week between the officials and Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo, who also picked up a borderline roughing the passer penalty last week.
“[Sendejo] said, ‘What could I have done different?’ ” Zimmer said. “[The official] said, ‘You did everything right. You couldn’t have done anything different. They just want us to throw the flag.’ ”
The protection of quarterbacks has been so egregious this season that even the quarterbacks are embarrassed about it. Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks earned a roughing the passer penalty against Aaron Rodgers, and the quarterback couldn’t believe it.
“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,” Rodgers said. “I’m a traditionalist. I’ve watched the game and loved the game for a long time. And some of the rules help, but some of the rules maybe are going in the wrong direction. They’re trying to think about the progress of the game and the safety and stuff. But it’s still a collision sport, and those to me are not penalties.”
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco also spoke out against the quarterback protections last week.
“This is football, man. We all sign up to get hit,” he said. “It’s part of what makes it interesting to watch. It’s a violent sport, it’s meant to be that way. I definitely have feelings for those [defenders] over there because not only are they penalizing people and affecting outcomes of games, but they’re also taking paychecks away from people and they’re acting like it’s no big deal.”
The NFL is right to protect the quarterbacks but needs to dial it back a bit. Everyone wants more offense, but not if it comes from arbitrary penalties that affect the outcomes of games.
Patriots turn up defensive heat
■ Few teams have blitzed less in recent years than the Patriots, who would rather play it safe with a four-man rush and make a team earn its way down the field. But one of the most fascinating yet disconcerting aspects of last Sunday’s loss was that the Patriots were aggressive with the blitz, yet could never get home.
Watching the All-22 video, I was blown away by how many blitzes were called by Brian Flores — and by how ineffective they were. Keelan Cole’s 24-yard touchdown reception came on a seven-man blitz. Austin Seferian-Jenkins also converted a third-and-7 with a catch against a seven-man blitz. I’m not sure I have ever seen the Patriots blitz with seven, and they did it twice in the first half.
Cole caught a 14-yarder against a six-man blitz. Donte Moncrief had a 14-yarder against a five-man blitz. Patrick Chung blitzed three times in a row late in the second quarter and didn’t get to the quarterback once. And Dede Westbrook’s game-clinching 61-yard touchdown came on a corner blitz from Jason McCourty that got nowhere.
It’s bad enough that the Patriots’ front four doesn’t get much pressure. But when they’re sending the house and still can’t get to the QB? That’s a major issue.
■ On the flip side, Blake Bortles is no longer a punch line. He played like a legitimate franchise quarterback last Sunday. He stayed calm in the pocket in the face of constant blitzing. He bought time, stepped up in the pocket, and made big throws over the middle. He audibled to the right run call when he recognized the Patriots’ soft defensive front. If Bortles can keep playing like that, the Jaguars are a legitimate Super Bowl threat.
■ Cornerback Cyrus Jones can be classified in the “bust” category, as the former second-round pick was cut at the end of training camp and found himself on the Ravens’ practice squad for the first two weeks. So when the Patriots brought him back this past week, why did they re-sign him to a two-year deal? As usual, it was smart business.
Had the Patriots signed Jones to the standard one-year deal, he would be a restricted free agent this offseason, and they would have to determine whether to give him an RFA tender, and at what level (the minimum level will be about $2 million next year). Instead, they have him locked up for next year and don’t have to worry about his free agency status after the season. He’ll be back for OTAs and training camp, but still has to make the team next fall.
In order to get Jones to agree to giving up his RFA rights, the Patriots gave him the same base salaries he was set to make on his original Patriots contract: $814,246 this year ($718,452 prorated) and $996,369 next year. The minimum salaries for Jones are $630,000 and $735,000.
■ A league spokesman said there is no timeline on the joint review between the NFL and NFL Players Association into Chung’s concussion last Sunday, and why the medical people involved in the concussion protocol didn’t catch Chung’s injury sooner.
Using a similar situation from last year involving Russell Wilson as our guide, that review took six weeks and resulted in the Seahawks receiving a $100,000 fine, and team medical personnel having to take remedial training on the concussion protocol.
Rodgers, Wentz have green light
Two top quarterbacks that are dealing with knee injuries are both set to start Sunday — the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers with a “knee sprain” (likely an MCL but unclear), and the Eagles’ Carson Wentz, who will face the Colts a little more than nine months since tearing his ACL and LCL.
Rodgers set off some alarms last week when he was asked if he is worried about further injuring his knee instead of taking time off to rest.
“Yeah, obviously that’s a concern,” he said Wednesday. “Hopefully it goes the other way, though.”
But former Chargers team doctor and current SiriusXM injury analyst David Chao is optimistic that Rodgers’s injury won’t linger.
“Rodgers’s injury will not dominate this season,” Chao told me. “Only a small chance of reinjury given the brace he is wearing. He should be fully mobile again when October arrives.”
As for Wentz, who suffered his knee injury last Dec. 10, Eagles coach Doug Pederson said he’s not going to coach tentatively or hold back Wentz. But realistically, Wentz might not be the same mobile player he once was for a while. Wentz rushed for 299 yards last year, averaging 23 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry.
“Wentz will be more athletic than many quarterbacks, but there’s no way he’s 100 percent,” Chao said. “Despite claims to the contrary, the Eagles will adapt their scheme to keep him safe.”
Week 3, do or die
The most important game of the week might be the one that features two winless teams — Giants at Texans. Not to put too much pressure on a Week 3 matchup, but both teams’ seasons might hinge on the outcome.
Starting 0-2 is bad enough — since the 1970 merger, only 36 out of 366 teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs, per the Pro Football Reference databases. But it can be done — last year’s Saints did it, the 2001 Patriots and 2007 Giants won the Super Bowl, and the 1996 Patriots reached the Super Bowl.
But 0-3 is a veritable death sentence. Since the merger, only five out of 213 teams to start 0-3 have reached the playoffs. It hasn’t been done in 20 years, since the 1998 Bills.
Giants coach Pat Shurmur could use a victory just to win over his locker room and get that first win out of the way. But for Texans coach Bill O’Brien, already with two poor performances and 11 losses in his last 12 games, a third loss to start the season could put him squarely on the hot seat.
Jon Gruden should perhaps stop talking about pass rushers after trading Khalil Mack right before the season. “It’s hard to find a great one. It’s hard to find a good one. It’s hard to find one,” Gruden said last week, without a hint of irony. “No, it doesn’t make me regret the trade. We made the trade. We made the trade. You know there’s going to be hindsight, all that stuff, but we would have loved to have had him here. I’m not going to keep rehashing this.” The Raiders have two sacks and seven QB hits through two games. Mack has two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, and a touchdown for the Bears . . . The Ravens were fined $200,000 by the NFL for having two players with the helmet headsets on the field at the same time during the preseason (ostensibly Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson). As a wise man once said, “Maybe those guys got to study the rule book and figure it out.” . . . The rules and procedures of the NFL’s PED testing are spelled out quite clearly. If Odell Beckham thinks he’s being tested for PEDs too often, he and his agent should file a grievance through the NFL Players Association. Otherwise, just take the pee test . . . Matt Patricia isn’t the only coach facing his former team on Sunday. New Colts coach Frank Reich heads to Philadelphia for a showdown with the Eagles, for whom he was offensive coordinator last year. Reich sent the Philly media corps a box of cannolis on Friday, writing in a note that it “was an honor to work with you all.” . . . Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Patrick Mahomes on Sunday in Kansas City is must-watch television . . . Didn’t see this one coming: The Saints are averaging just 2.9 yards per carry through two games, 31st in the NFL. Last year they were No. 2 at 4.7, but Mark Ingram is serving a four-game suspension, Alvin Kamara has been bottled up (3.6-yard average), and Mike Gillislee hasn’t picked up the slack (27 yards on 11 carries, 2.5 average).
Quote of the Week
“When I was in Buffalo, there was like nothing to do there, except . . . have fun with your wife. She got pregnant. So we always say we got a Buffalo baby.”
— Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews, who spent the 2017 season with the Bills.