As the 2019 NFL season winds down, the controversy over borderline pass interference and roughing the passer calls continues rage across the league and its fan base. The non call against the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman, who tackled the Saints’ Tommy Lee Lewis a split second before the ball arrived in the NFC Championship game last January, coupled with injuries to several starting QB’s early this season (Roethlisberger, Foles, Mahomes) and an unexpected retirement (Luck) have resulted in an all-out blitz against NFL defenses by the league office, with the guys in stripes playing the role of oncoming pass rushers. In short, the hunters have become the hunted.
However, the latest chapter of defense shaving, in the form of making all potential PI calls subject to review is only the proverbial icing on already unsavory cake. In truth, the league has been attempting to, in effect, legislate outcomes, or at least, points and yardage totals to NFL games for decades. I remember reading a Sports Illustrated article in October 1978, just two months after the ‘Dead Ball’ era officially came to an end, heralding the new rules that opened up the modern day passing game: https://www.si.com/vault/1978/10/23/823075/fancy-passing-was-not-a-passing-fancy-deep-threat-an-x--and-o-rated-production-featuring-half-a-dozen-fleet-young-receivers-is-now-being-shown-at-your-local-nfl-stadium
In 1977, the last NFL season in which defensive backs were allowed to make contact with receivers anywhere on the field of play, teams averaged just 17.2 points per game, the lowest since 1942, and quarterbacks averaged an all time low of just 5.18 yards per attempt. Clearly, something needed to be done, so the league mandated that defensive players could only bump opposing players within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and even then, only before the ball was thrown. The results were only modestly apparent at first, and the following year, the league’s highest paid running back, O.J. Simpson, still made more than twice as much as the highest paid quarterback, Fran Tarkenton. But the seeds for an offensive renaissance that continues to this day, with no end in sight, had been planted.
Attempts, completions and completion percentages have climbed steadily since then, and with NFL games today seemingly raining a steady torrent of yellow flags for what officials refer to as ‘roughing the passer’, quarterbacks, receivers and fans of the passing game have never had it better. Former Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill currently sits atop atop the league with a gaudy 9.5 yards per pass attempt -- that’s right -- nearly double the all time low set 42 years ago. As virtually every member of the now 32 team league searches high and low to find their messianic QB to lead them to the promised land, there are about the same number of ‘franchise quarterbacks’ in the NFL today as there has always been, about five or six guys.
The Dolphins have been both the victims and beneficiaries of game changing calls against defensive players over the past two seasons. Although it was a thrilling game and one which I’m very glad the Dolphins won (I also don’t particularly like the Bears), if we’re honest, there are two things we can can definitively say about the phantom roughing the passer call against Chicago outside linebacker Leonard Floyd at Hard Rock Stadium last season: one, it wasn’t even remotely close to constituting roughing the passer, and two, the Dolphins almost certainly lose that game if the official doesn’t throw that flag. Just two weeks ago, the officiating crew at MetLife Stadium essentially stole a victory from Miami with a bogus defensive PI call. We can argue all day about whether the Dolphins would have been better off winning or losing that game, but either way, it never should have come down to a yellow flag on third and eighteen with just seconds remaining on the scoreboard clock.
So, where is the NFL headed in this regard, going forward? Will they continue to tweak the rule book to hobble defenses even more, or will the backlash over ticky-tack calls finally result in some much needed, in my opinion, backpedaling by the league in this department? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this issue.