This is exactly what the NFL decision makers were hoping to see when they made roughing the passer a new point of emphasis this season. Through the season's first four games, there have been 228 passing touchdowns. It's the most, by far, to happen in the modern game, according to the NFL's research. All the end-zone celebrations have come with a cost though, with near-weekly headlines already this season about the hazy roughing the passer rules.
The backlash against the roughing the passer flags got so bad, the NFL's powerful rules committee was said to be re-thinking its stance. The anger over the rules, particularly from the defensive side of the ball, intensified when a Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes suffered a season-ending injury in an attempt to protect quarterback David Carr:
But do the offensive fireworks cancel out all the gripes NFL quarterbacks have basically turned into a glorified flag football player?
The NFL might think so. The closest to this sort of aerial assault football fans have seen in the modern era was five years ago, when there were 205 passing TDs in the season's first quarter. That's still well short of this season's 228, and yardage per reception has increased along with all the roughing flags. Sports Illustrated played the first quarter out over a full year and saw new records in touchdowns, passing attempts, and passing yards per game. Along with Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins and Ben Roethlisberger setting career highs. This is what the NFL wanted.
The thinking goes something like this: the roughing the passer penalties might upset a certain type of bloodthirsty fan, which the NFL has already struggled to keep engaged surrounding Colin Kaepernick's nonviolent attempts to make fans more aware of police brutality against minorities in America (read that last clause back again and try not to slam your head against a table). But the NFL feels the offensive windfall that's been a real consequence of protecting the quarterback will bring a new generation of fan to the game. A younger audience that wants to see 50-yard darts to high-flying wide receivers with glue on their gloves and choreographed touchdown dances, not another impotent offensive lineman on the ground and a starting QB writing in agony on the field as a defensive lineman shimmies in victory.
“The NFL is trying to say that this [roughing-the-passer emphasis] is a safety issue, and that that is a noble endeavor,” former QB and ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck tells SI. “But it’s really a business issue. You’re seeing defensive players paying the price for the sins of defensive players from 20 years ago, when coaches would teach players how to hurt a quarterback. Pin the arms, take them to the ground. . . . This is how you separate the shoulder, this is how you break the clavicle. . . . But if Cam Newton is not on the field, that’s not good for the league’s bottom line. It’s tough that William Hayes tore his ACL. But the league would rather have Hayes out than have Derek Carr out. That’s just the reality.”
Offensive players have already adapted with "quarterbacks holding the ball longer,” former coach and current commentator Tony Dungy tells SI. “It’s like, 'Hey, they can’t hit me? I’m going to wait.'"
The days of the Purple People Eaters, Lawrence Taylor as a crazed Mike Tyson in the backfield, or Bruce Smith living in a QBs mug are falling by the wayside. As fans delight in aerial shootouts, and defenders try and adapt to the new rules, a new era of football emerges. Whether it stays remains to be seen, but the adjustment is already happening, as the NFL takes a gamble that one Baby Boomer's hollered protestations about how wimpy the league has gotten is drowned out by all the millennials cheering a creative touchdown dance.