STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A common penalty in pro football has become more common - roughing the passer. Defensive players aren't supposed to use excessive force on the quarterback. In the first month of the season, officials imposed more roughing the passer penalties than usual. And rather than delivering relief that the league is safer, this has led to concerns. Here's commentator Mike Pesca.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: There are 19 ways for a football play to end. The most recent one added to the NFL rulebook is Rule 7, Section 2, part Q - a runner's helmet coming off. There is also when a field goal donks off the goal post or when a loose ball strikes a video board or a skycam.
But the vast majority of football plays end in violence. In football, if roughness weren't necessary, there wouldn't be a penalty called unnecessary roughness. But the NFL has come to realize it must redefine its governing mantra of acceptable violence. Player health is no longer something to be taken lightly. At the same time, the NFL has rightly come to believe that, for football to remain high-scoring entertainment, those gunslinging quarterbacks need to be specially cared for.
Clay Matthews would say coddled. In successive weeks, the Green Bay Packer delivered hits on quarterbacks that would have earned a player praise from Pop Warner level to the pros. Instead, Matthews' hits were met with opprobrium. The NFL said that Matthews' tackles were rule violations because he had put, quote, "most, if not all, of his body weight on the opponent," which is to say the NFL seems to have defined an illegal tackle by defining the word tackle and then saying that's illegal. The NFL had gone too far and was attempting to capriciously enforce rules that wouldn't just soften or safen the game but would confuse it.
As societal acceptance of violence changes - and as our knowledge of head trauma expands - sports obviously must change, too. This change might come in fits and false starts in the NFL. But there must be progress, however herky-jerky, toward a set of rules that balances the old roughness with the new sensitivity. This last Sunday, roughing the passer penalties dropped to two from 34 the week prior. I don't know if the two was herky or the 34 was jerky, but it's an indication that the NFL is trying to get the balance right.
NFL tough guys, of course, like seeing fewer flags for crunching quarterbacks. But the die- hards will always oppose softness. They believe in the more expansive version of acceptable violence. And in the case of one specific and glaring overcorrection, they have a point. But the NFL's broader recalibration - no matter three weeks of excessive whistling, there is still an existential challenge.
INSKEEP: Mike Pesca is nearly always herky and is the host of the Slate podcast "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.