Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Do not touch them.
Do not hit them too hard, either. Don’t put your weight on them.
Be delicate. No tussling of hair. Wedgies will lead to ejections. No harsh language, finger-pointing or sarcasm aimed at them. Tickling will be a 15-yard penalty. Talking about a quarterback’s momma will lead to a fine.
If the penalties hadn’t made the policy clear enough, the NFL even released a statement Sunday to make it clearer: “We strongly encourage all defensive players to not hit the quarterback ever,” the letter from Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office read. “Instead, buy them a drink.”
Treat QBs like silk pillows. Cuddle them. Hug them. Speak to them softly.
Is some of this hyperbole? Sarcasm? Of course.
But it’s not so far off.
What has happened with Matthews this season—and also happened Sunday with Cowboys defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford on a hit of Seahawks QB Russell Wilson—is bound to cause massive reverberations on and off the field.
It will continue to anger and confuse defensive players and coaches who are asking themselves, What exactly is football supposed to be today? What is an acceptable hit? How much violence is allowed?
Off the field, it’s the kind of thing that can impact fandom. What truly causes fans to stop watching football isn’t players kneeling or hatred of Goodell; it’s watching a game that no longer looks familiar.
The safety of players is always paramount—and this is a league that in the past, and likely now, has never really cared about the health of its players (a league that was, at best, deceptive about what it knew regarding CTE and that also asks its players to play Thursday night games). So, yes, any instance of it protecting players is a good thing.
But there’s protection, and then there is overcorrection.
The league is massively overcorrecting to the point where it forces you to throw up your hands. Or throw something at your television.
What Matthews did Sunday was tackle Alex Smith in a way that anyone who has ever played or watched football will see as familiar and correct.
Matthews was also flagged last week for a similar tackle:
Kevin Boilard @247KevinBoilard
#Packers LB Clay Matthews appeared to catch himself with his left arm while taking down #Vikings QB Kirk Cousins on this play, but was still called for roughing the passer https://t.co/5u4nYcQg7G
Josh Tolentino @JCTSports
Phenomenal timely capture by Mike Roemer/Associated Press. Roughing the passer on Clay Matthews? You decide. #Packers #Vikings https://t.co/xJ66pZ2reG
And that being called roughing the quarterback was also stupid.
But the calls just keep getting worse.
Why was this one worse? You can see that Matthews learned from what happened on his previous penalty, and as he took down Smith on Sunday, he released his hands and shifted his weight so it wasn’t fully on the quarterback.
NFL Football Operations @NFLFootballOps
This is a foul for roughing the passer – the defender lands “with all or most of the defender’s weight” on the passer. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(b): https://t.co/s9YKN8NLuT #GBvsWAS https://t.co/ei2QZkvvzx
The NFL, never missing a chance to be snooty, doubled down on its call on Twitter.
The problem is Matthews didn’t do what it said he did.
The tackle by Crawford on Wilson was similarly awful.
Joey Hayden @_joeyhayden
“Roughing the passer” on Tyrone Crawford
#DALvsSEA #CowboysNation https://t.co/Rm2LWeSSEn
It was so bad that Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman went off during the Fox broadcast.
“Tyrone Crawford comes in, makes a textbook play, and these are game-changing penalties,” Aikman said. “I’m tired of talking about it.”
Aikman added, “The league just can’t seem to get out of its own way.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy was so angry after the Matthews penalty, it looked like his head was going to blast off into low orbit.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Packers pass-rusher was called for a total of four roughing the passer penalties from 2009 to 2017. This season alone he has three. In other words, Matthews isn’t a serial offender in this area. He’s the type of seasoned veteran who should be able to adjust to a reasonable rule change.
A reasonable one.
Matthews, who called the hit “a football play,” gave a stirring and accurate defense of his play. He also said something a lot of players and lovers of football are likely thinking:
Michael Cohen @Michael_Cohen13
Here’s #Packers OLB Clay Matthews describing his third roughing-the-passer penalty in three weeks: https://t.co/8ZWoCm3BVz
This isn’t about being the old goat drinking beer on the couch, grabbing his crotch and talking about the good old days when Bronko Nagurski (Google him) could bend a dude’s facemask with his teeth. And it isn’t just a Matthews or Packers problem.
It’s a larger issue and emblematic of where the NFL is headed—a league that continues to try to become non-violent despite having violence at its core.
The NFL’s effort is centered on protecting QBs at all costs. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s just reached the most absurd heights we’ve ever seen.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
And what is the league doing this for? Player safety? I’m not so sure. Some of it, I believe, is about negating the power of defenses, creating more explosive offenses. Another part of it, I believe, is the NFL attempting to shelter itself from any future class-action lawsuits regarding head trauma.
See, the NFL can say, we were trying to protect players.
But the way it’s doing that goes against everything we know about tackling and about what football is supposed to be.
We don’t need to get too much into the NFL weeds here, but there are numerous areas the league could address to focus on player health and safety. As mentioned, the Thursday night games are despised by players because of a short rest after playing on a Sunday. Get rid of them. Give interior defensive players the same protection afforded others. Increase roster size. Guarantee salaries and health care. There are literally hundreds of better ways to increase safety.
You can’t control the constant violence of football with excessive rules and eggheaded theories for specific types of plays. All you can do with those is confuse players and create a game that fans don’t understand.
A game where defenders need to remember to love quarterbacks and not hit them. Say something sweet to them. Maybe wish them a happy fall. Shake their hands. But not too tight.
Make them some tea, Earl Grey, but not hot. Don’t want them to burn their tongues.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.