The comeback Aaron Rodgers orchestrated on Sunday night, both from his own left knee sprain and from the 20-0 deficit the Green Bay Packers faced against the Chicago Bears, has turned the eyes of the NFL’s pundit class toward Lambeau Field in Week 2, as the league’s juiciest story line centers primarily on whether Rodgers will play Sunday against the Vikings.
That has made the rule change triggered by Rodgers’ last matchup with the Vikings — when he broke his right collarbone following a hit from Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr — more of a subplot than an animating force of drama this week. Rodgers was not asked about the hit during his weekly media session on Wednesday, and when Barr was asked Thursday if he’ll make a point of seeking out Rodgers before Sunday’s game, he said: “I’m going about my normal business. I don’t usually talk to opponents before the game, so I’m not too concerned about that.”
The effects of the so-called “Aaron Rodgers Rule” — which penalizes defenders for landing on a quarterback with all or most of their body weight as the passer sets up to throw — are alive and well in the first weeks of the 2018 NFL season, however. Officials threw 15 flags for roughing-the-passer penalties in the first week of the season; five, including the one assessed to Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson against the 49ers, were for defenders who landed with their body weight on a QB.
“I think [Richardson’s penalty] was valid,” Barr said. “That was a pretty clear call as to what we’ve been told the last few months. So I understand that one. You’ve just got to continue to be aware of it, and make sure you’re playing by the rules.”
Playing by the rules, such as they are, has been the challenge for defenders in the wake of the league’s new efforts to protect quarterbacks when they’re out of the pocket. While they’re aware of the need to play within the new statutes brought on in part by Barr’s hit on Rodgers last Oct. 15, they’re still trying to figure out how to adhere to the rules without ceding too much ground to offensive players — particularly those like Rodgers, whose mobility makes him an additional threat.
“I think you try to play as normal as possible, maybe up until the point where you bring the guy down, and then try to ease off a bit. But to that point, you’ve got to keep playing,” Barr said. “You don’t want to ease up on the quarterback and he takes off right by you. It’s tough, but it’s important to continue to be conscious of that.”
Even Rodgers’ teammates, grateful as they are to have their quarterback on the field once again, seem flustered by the rule.
Linebacker Clay Matthews was flagged for roughing the passer after hitting Mitch Trubisky on Sunday night, extending the Bears’ late comeback bid after Rodgers’ 75-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb gave the Packers the lead. Matthews admitted on Wednesday that “you can make a case for my hit late in the game as being [a late hit]” but added the Packers had penalties called on Muhammad Wilkerson and Nick Perry “that I just did not agree with.”
“I heard some stat about, it was the most roughing-the-passer penalties called since, you know, whenever,” Matthews said. “I think they’re just trying to put an emphasis on quarterback hits and unnecessary quarterback hits. But obviously when you’re on defense, you feel it’s skewed toward the offense, especially the quarterback position.”
According to Stats LLC, roughing-the-passer penalties made up 5.9 percent of the flags thrown in Week 1, nearly double the 3.1 percent share of penalties that roughing-the-passer calls represented last year. It’s possible the rule will be relaxed in time, or that players will successfully be able to retrain themselves to comply with the new standards.
But for now, while much of the personal animus over Barr’s hit on Rodgers seems to have subsided, the effect of the rule changes remains.
So, too, does the consternation from defenders about how it alters what they do on the field.
“I play football,” Richardson said. “I’m not going to be dirty. I’m going to play football. It’s aggressive, and it is what it is. If you’re scared, go to church.”