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‘Remember, we can fine it on Monday’: NFL urging refs to show restraint on roughing-the-passer penalties

Green Bay’s Clay Matthews has disagreed with a few roughing-the-passer calls this season.jonathan newton/Washington Post

NEW YORK — The NFL thought the big controversy this season would be the catch rule, as always. And the controversy of the preseason centered around the new lowering-the-helmet rule.

But those two have subsided, and a new controversy has emerged over the first six weeks: an increase of roughing-the-passer penalties, and the special protections being afforded to quarterbacks.

Through six weeks, the NFL has seen 51 roughing-the-passer penalties, compared with 36 a year ago. The most derided phrase in the game is no longer “going to the ground,” but “landed with full body weight,” a subjective penalty that has ensnared the Packers’ Clay Matthews and many others.

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But the NFL is unapologetic, even if some of the penalties have been ticky-tack.

“The league hasn’t batted 1.000,” said Rich McKay, the Falcons president and Competition Committee chairman, at the owners meetings Tuesday. “But I don’t think as a committee we’ve ever apologized for trying to protect players that we think are in the most vulnerable state.”

The illegal contact penalty is also way up this year — 36 calls compared with 11 last year. But there were 30 such calls in 2016, McKay said.

The rise in defensive penalties also coincides with a record offensive year. Through six weeks, the league has seen a record for points (4,489), touchdowns (504), and touchdown passes (328).

“I think that the illegal contact, defensive holding, and the adjustments to use of the head have put probably safeties in a little bit different position than they’ve traditionally been the last couple of years,” McKay said.

There may be evidence that fewer roughing-the-passer penalties are coming, however. Only three were called in Week 6, though that may be a one-week anomaly. McKay said he expects an “adjustment of play” from the players and a “leveling out of calls” from officials as the season wears on.

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And NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said the league has emphasized more caution to its officials. The Competition Committee held an emergency conference call on the Wednesday after Week 3 to discuss roughing the passer and the body-weight issue, and the numbers are telling: 33 penalties in the three weeks before the call, and 18 in the three weeks afterward. Vincent said the NFL has reinforced in its weekly Saturday call with referees the need to show more restraint.

“That is one we talk about every week: If you don’t see it a complete play, don’t call it,” Vincent said. “If you don’t see the complete play, we ask that you leave the penalty in your pocket.”

Chiefs defensive tackle Breeland Speaks said Sunday night that he was so worried about getting a penalty on Tom Brady that he let him out of his grasp, leading to a touchdown run by Brady. Vincent wasn’t buying that explanation.

“Tom did what we’ve seen Tom do a thousand times: He stepped up in the pocket, and the defender didn’t make the play,” Vincent said.

Meanwhile, the new lowering-the-helmet penalty has barely been called this season. It was called 51 times in the first two weeks of the preseason, but in the regular season has been flagged just six times in six weeks, McKay said.

The NFL clarified in the preseason that incidental contact would not be a foul, which drastically reduced the number of penalties called. And the NFL has also urged more restraint from officials, telling them the league can always fine the player even if a penalty isn’t called.

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Vincent said that while only six penalties have been called for lowering the helmet, the league has fined 10-12 players, and sent warning letters to nearly 70.

“We said, ‘Hey, if you don’t see it end to end and you don’t see all three elements of it, then remember, we can fine it on Monday,’ ” McKay said. “We’ll get the conduct corrected.”

The NFL also announced that documented concussions were down in training camp, from 91 in 2017 to 79 this year (includes practices and all games). Most notably, there were zero concussions on kickoffs, compared with three last year.

The NFL identified the kickoff play as having five times the concussion rate of a normal play, and altered the rules this season to eliminate running starts and double teams. The NFL has also invested in testing helmets for concussion prevention, and is in the process of banning several helmets that don’t perform well.

The NFL also held an “intervention” with seven teams that had a higher incidence of practice concussions in 2017, and six of the seven had fewer concussions this training camp.

The league would not divulge the teams involved, but said they combined for 23 concussions last year, and nine this year.

“It’s a small sample size and it’s an observation, but we’re pleased to see our clubs are taking this issue very seriously,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.

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The two-day meetings are being held with heavy hearts following the death of Seahawks owner and Microsoft founder Paul Allen Monday.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he was supposed to join Allen on a trip to China next March, and was shocked to hear the news. It was only two weeks ago that Allen announced that his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma had returned.

“He was very understated, very unassuming, good guy. I’m very sad,” Kraft said. “He had been kind enough to invite me to go on a boat trip to China in March. It’s unbelievable. I was trying to arrange my schedule to do it, while I was in Asia. He was a wonderful guy.”

Allen bought the Seahawks in 1996 for $194 million, cementing their home in Seattle and ending speculation of them moving to Los Angeles.

“That was the biggest contribution, keeping it there and stopping the movement to move the team,” Kraft said. “And he did it as a community commitment.”