“Personal foul, roughing the passer. Fifteen yard penalty, automatic first down.”
These words can change an NFL football game. Fans cringe to hear them when their player is the culprit, knowing their defense just gave away a first down and 15 yards. Similarly, a roughing the passer penalty on the opposing team’s defense is a gift. If your team’s quarterback isn’t hurt by the offending hit, the reward is the easiest first down and fifteen yards an offense will ever gain.
Each week a number of roughing the passer calls or non-calls draw criticism around the league. Kevin Vickerson of the Broncos was penalized for “roughing” Andrew Luck when he lightly bumped the quarterback, who smartly fell to the ground and gained a critical first down for the Indianapolis Colts. It seemed barely more than a touch, but was too visible for referees to ignore.
On the flip side, Peyton Manning was hit low late in Sunday’s 28-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers. No penalty flag was thrown. In Manning’s case, referees saw the contact but decided it did not warrant a 15-yard penalty.
Each week referees are forced to make critical calls regarding hits on the quarterback. The hits that are violent and blatant are the easy ones. But the majority of hits on the quarterback fall into a troublesome grey area, not really worthy of a personal foul but too obvious to ignore.
Hits like Vickerson’s bump of Luck present a difficult decision for referees: a 15-yard momentum changing penalty or nothing at all. But what if referees had a third option? If all hits on the quarterback are not equal, then why are the penalties equal?
I propose a “Running into the Passer” penalty. The rule would be similar to the penalty for running into the punter, a five yard award with no automatic first down. This penalty would cover the minor or incidental hits that can’t be ignored, but are clearly less physical and less dangerous.
Policing hits on the quarterback and protecting the league’s marquee players is increasing as a priority. Such an important task should be made as easy as possible for the men in pinstripes. Giving them a 5-yard penalty option for the less egregious hits on the quarterback would be a step in the right direction.