Did the NFL’s Roughing-the-Passer Rule Backfire the Moment Alex Smith Broke His Leg?

The roughing-the-passer rule has been controversial since its 2018 debut. While well-intentioned, it’s had unintended consequences that many say has hurt gameplay. And one of those unintended consequences may have resulted in Alex Smith’s career and life-threatening leg injury the first year the rule was established.

What is the roughing-the-passer rule?

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Simply put, the rule is a foul with a 10 to 15-yard penalty and an automatic down as a penalty. It’s called when a defensive player makes contact with a quarterback after they’ve thrown a forward pass. Defenders can make contact with the quarterback while the quarterback is attempting to make a forward pass.

They can also make contact with a quarterback making a lateral or backward pass. But they cannot do so after the quarterback has made the forward pass unless momentum carries them forward, and they cannot stop themselves from making contact.

The foul can also be called if a defender wrestles with the quarterback or passer, picks him up and drops him to the ground, makes helmet to helmet contact, or lands with his full body weight on the passer.

This rule was instituted to help the NFL protect its quarterbacks, who can suffer devastating injuries when sacked. However, the rule has its fair share of detractors, some with good reasons.

The roughing-the-passer rule is hard to implement consistently

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Critics of the rule note that it makes sacking more difficult. The rule does force NFL defenders to weigh when they sack quarterbacks more carefully. However, that’s often tough to do in the heat of a game, when decisions are being made in a split-second. Defenders are often rightly concerned about sacking now because if they do rush, and the quarterback gets off the pass first, they may be called for roughing the passer.

Ah, but what about the provision that purports to hold defenders harmless if momentum carries them forward. Unfortunately, a referee may call roughing the passer. He may believe that the defender did have enough time to choose not to rush. Or he may think a player deliberately lands on a quarterback with their full body weight when it was, in fact, momentum at fault.

A growing history of inconsistent calls

These aren’t just hypothetical situations. The rushing the passer rule has been inconsistently applied multiple times. As SBNation notes, the foul was called on Packers’ linebacker Clay Matthews three weeks in a row in 2018, making news as each was a questionable call. However, when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked in one of these games in a clear rule violation of the rules, it was not called.

The rule also begs the question more often now of whether refs will play favorites. Bleacher Report reported the very next month of roughing the passer call in favor of the Patriots they received against the Colts in their home stadium. Because it is a hard rule to consistently interpret, especially given that multiple referees are each interpreting the rule, players and fans will ask questions about favoritism.

Even now, the rule draws controversy. In a 2021 Lions-Vikings game, a Lions defensive back sacked the Vikings QB, who had not completed a pass to force a turnover on downs. The roughing the passer foul was called for helmet-to-helmet contact that was unavoidable.

Alex Smith: victim of the rule?

Alex Smith of the Washington Redskins is tackled by Justin Reid of the Houston Texans in 2018
Alex Smiths falls to the field in 2018 | Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Questions have swirled around the rule in relation to the 2018 play that left Alex Smith with a career-threatening injury. In Redskins-Texans game, Smith was sacked by defenders Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt. The sack left him with a serious injury that required 17 surgeries.

In replays, one can see Jackson and Watt trying to avoid landing on top of Smith. Pundits have questioned whether their efforts to avoid a rushing-the-passer foul may have led to them landing on his leg and causing the severe injury.

While this is a bit of a stretch, it does highlight the level of second-guessing that defenders must engage in to ensure they play by the rules. The roughing the passer rule may be well-intended. However, the rule needs to be rethought and revised, given how much room it leaves for inconsistent interpretation.