Roughing-the-passer call helps Tom Brady, causes controversy in Bucs-Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons were down just six points late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they sacked Tom Brady on third down. However, instead of getting the ball punted back to them for a chance at a game-winning drive, the Falcons were called for roughing the passer.

The Buccaneers kept possession and eventually were able to kneel out the clock for a 21-15 win, but howls arose from those who thought there was nothing wrong with the way Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett sacked Brady.

Among them was Scott Pioli, a former NFL personnel executive who said on Twitter, “I’ve seen a lot of #NFL football in my life, but someone is going to have to explain this roughing the passer call.”

The 57-year-old, who helped draft Brady while with the New England Patriots and whose subsequent stops included a stint in the Falcons’ front office, shared video of the play and added, “I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like this.”

On the play, Jarrett chased down Brady, who was corralled after moving to his right in the pocket to evade the defensive tackle. Jarrett grabbed Brady around the hips and slung the 45-year-old quarterback to the turf.

On the Fox Sports telecast, analyst Daryl Johnston criticized the call, saying there was “no intent to hurt the quarterback right there.” He added, “That is not in the spirit of the rule, the way it was created to protect quarterbacks.”

In the NFL rule book, a passage from the section on roughing the passer states: “When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.”

Jerome Boger, the head of the officiating crew in Tampa, said after the game: “What I had was the defender grabbed the quarterback while he was still in the pocket, and unnecessarily throwing him to the ground. That is what I was making my decision based upon.”

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Boger was asked if his crew “made a specific measure to try to watch out” for such treatment of quarterbacks, given the play’s similarity to one on which the Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was injured in Week 4.

“No, not necessarily,” he replied via a pool reporter.

“It was a terrible call,” Tony Dungy, an NBC Sports analyst and former Buccaneers coach, said in a tweet. “They have to protect all players, including the QBs. But Jarrett did nothing wrong. I believe this call was an overreaction to Tua last week.”

Some who chimed in online suggested that the identity of the sack victim — in this case, the NFL’s biggest star and arguably its all-time greatest quarterback — affected the officials’ willingness to blow a whistle on the play.

“The Falcons got ROBBED,” former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, now an ESPN analyst, said on Twitter. “Hitting the QB hard does not equal Roughing the Passer even if it’s Tom Brady.”

“The roughing call they just gave to Brady might be the most embarrassingly bad NFL call in five years,” ESPN’s Mike Greenberg tweeted. “And there is zero chance they call it for any other quarterback.”

Tampa Bay Coach Todd Bowles, in response to a question after the game about whether he thought “other quarterbacks would have gotten the same call,” said he saw similar calls made in the game involving Tagovailoa and in a New York Giants-Green Bay Packers matchup earlier Sunday.

“I think they’re starting to crack down on some of the things and slinging back,” Bowles told reporters, “so right now, the way they’re calling it, I think a lot of people would’ve gotten that call.”

Atlanta Coach Arthur Smith, who appeared upset on the sideline when the call was made, declined to criticize the officials after the game. Asked if he thought it was roughing, Smith said: “I’m not going to get into that. I haven’t seen the film, and I’ve got to worry about how to coach that.”

Reporters pursued the issue, and Smith was asked if he thought his Falcons got a “fair shake” from officials.

“I’ve got to worry about what I can control,” he replied, “so I just need to see what I can do to coach those situations better.”

Smith also declined to comment on whether Brady’s status in the league helped him get the call.

Several commenters on the roughing call pointed out that, one play before, the Falcons were not flagged for possible pass interference on a long pass attempt from Brady to wide receiver Scotty Miller that fell incomplete. However, such plays, and the decisions officials must make on them, occur frequently in NFL games. The roughing call struck more than a few as unusually unfair to Jarrett, not to mention particularly damaging to Atlanta’s hopes of winning on the road.

It was the second straight week that Boger took criticism for a crucial roughing-the-passer penalty. His crew flagged the Baltimore Ravens last week for a hit late in the fourth quarter on Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen that helped the Bills mount a game-winning drive.

Former NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith suggested Sunday that the NFL needed to make roughing-the-passer calls reviewable. “This is out of control,” he said online.

Following the win over the Falcons, Brady was asked for his thoughts on the play.

“I don’t throw the flags,” he said.

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