Sports Columnist

John Steigerwald has been a fixture of TV, radio, and newspaper sports in Pittsburgh, and has a Sunday column in the Observer-Reporter.

How about passing less?

The NFL has a problem with roughing-the-passer penalties. Maybe you’ve noticed.

T.J. Watt of the Steelers sure noticed when he found out that he was fined $20,000 for almost touching Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the ankle last week. Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers has become the poster child for the call. He’s been the most visible victim of the “putting full weight “ on the quarterback idiocy.

The NFL became a pass-first, run-second league a long time ago. Remember when teams wouldn’t dare line up five receivers and put the quarterback in an empty backfield? Now the quarterback is almost always back there by himself. When they changed the rules and prevented wide receivers from being to touched after five yards downfield and allowed offensive linemen to use their hands to block, the temptation to pass became too great and running backs were no longer the stars of the offense.

The NFL believed their fans liked lots of scoring and lots of passing and that’s what they have.

Offensive linemen being allowed to use their hands and receivers roaming free downfield made ridiculously large, fast guys like Matthews and Watt, who could get around offensive tackles and get to the quarterback, almost as valuable as the quarterback.

Linebackers used to be known for their ability to stop running backs. Now they’re known for their ability to get in the other team’s backfield. Thirty passes in a game used to be a lot. Now, teams are throwing that many in the first half. So, quarterbacks are vulnerable during a game almost twice as often as they used to be.

Why would anybody be surprised to see a need for rules intended to keep them safer? You can’t have a passing league and not expect defensive coaches to find ways to overcome the rules that give the offense such a huge advantage.

So, maybe the league should think about tweaking the rules to make it a little less appealing to pass. Limited substitution could limit five-receiver sets. And it could also limit seven defensive backs in formations. Coaches and quarterbacks would have to be a little smarter and there would be quite a chess game to control if substitution was limited to one player per play.

Would fans find more running backs like Saquon Barkley boring? Steelers fans seemed too enjoy Jerome Bettis every bit as much as they enjoy Antonio Brown. The NFL wanted the excitement that comes with a pass-first league, but it’s evolved into a game that’s not as exciting as it was 20 or 30 years ago and quarterbacks dropping back 50 or 60 times in a game are much more likely to get hurt.

The league can’t legislate running backs into the game so it has to live with the monster it created.

Of course, I didn’t mention the elephant in every NFL locker room – performance-enhancing drugs. There are guys, who have what some might say are unnaturally big, muscular bodies, playing at a high rate of speed. When they get past the quarterback’s first line of defense, they find themselves in an empty backfield. That’s a result of the rules that make it wise to throw it 40 or 50 times a game.

Now the league is trying to artificially protect the quarterback with penalty flags that are an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever watched a tackle football game.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for better drug testing that might actually shrink the players. If the NFL has wanted that it would’ve happened a long time ago.

So, the plan is to slow those guys down with impossible-to-avoid penalty flags.

It’s only a matter of time before a team loses a game it can’t afford to lose because of a stupid roughing-the-passer penalty. And keep in mind that, once the coaches have a few of these calls go against them, they’ll be whining about not getting the calls in situations where it could save them.

And the number of passes per game is going to go up before it comes down. If it ever does.

Just think how much more attractive passing becomes to a coach when he knows his quarterback can’t be hit.

  • Is Antonio Brown high maintenance enough for you?
  • The Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals should find out a lot about themselves today. The Steelers could find out that their defensive performance against the Atlanta Falcons wasn’t a fluke by doing the same to the Bengals on the road. They could come home re-installed as the favorite to win the AFC North. The Bengals could find out that they’re still the Bengals by allowing that to happen. Coach Marvin Lewis’ teams always seem to find a way to underachieve, especially against the Steelers. A loss at home today and they’ll be back to being the same old Bengals.

And they’ll know it.

John Steigerwald writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

Thank you for reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.