WASHINGTON — Clay Matthews knew he was in the wrong after his late hit on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky kept a fourth-quarter drive alive for the Chicago Bears in the season opener.
The veteran outside linebacker was less understanding when a very questionable roughing the passer penalty wiped out a game-clinching interception last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. But Matthews largely held his tongue, wary of drawing the attention of the league office in the form of a fine.
“I know what to say,” Matthews mused after that game ended in a tie. “It’s just I don’t want to lose anymore money.”
On Sunday in Washington, though, the 32-year-old had seen and heard enough. Minutes after the Green Bay Packers fell 31-17 to the Redskins, a swarm of reporters crowded around Matthews to hear his reaction to a third roughing the passer penalty in as many games.
This one came on an actual sack, with Matthews crashing through the right side of Washington’s line in the third quarter, planting his right shoulder into quarterback Alex Smith’s chest and taking him to the ground. It was a big play for a defense trying to make up for its inept performance in the first half. But instead of a loss of 12 yards, it was a 15-yard penalty. It left Matthews crouched down, contemplating what had just happened and ready to erupt in frustration. He didn’t, though, deciding to wait until after the game to lash out.
“Unfortunately, I think this league is going in a direction that a lot of people don’t like. I think they’re getting soft,” Matthews said bluntly. “The only thing hard about this league is the fines they levy down on guys like me that play the game hard.”
Matthews’ anger was nothing compared to coach Mike McCarthy’s. Though far from mild mannered, McCarthy rarely loses it to the point he did on Sunday. FOX cameras caught McCarthy, now in his 13th year leading the team, needing to be held back as he chased after one official, screaming and pointing.
“I thought Clay did exactly what he was supposed to do there,” McCarthy said after the game. “How it’s being officiated, those are questions for other people. He hit him with his shoulder. He was coming full speed off a block and braced himself, so I was fine with what Clay did.”
The NFL was not. The operations arm of the league took to Twitter to point out the exact rule that Matthews broke, backing up referee Craig Wrolstad, who then spoke for himself after the game.
“I had judged the defender landed on the quarterback when he was tackling him with most or all of his body weight and that’s not allowed,” Wrolstad said, according to a pool reporter. “If you do that, it’s roughing the passer.”
OK, but what could he have done different?
“If you’ve got a shoulder into him and then landed on him with most of his body weight off him or released him when he went down, they he would have been OK,” Wrolstad said.
What? You’re asking a 250-pound man to stop all of his momentum from a perfect form tackle — a style of tackle Matthews has been doing for the entire 20 years he’s played the game? How? And more importantly, why? The ball wasn’t out of Smith’s hands. He wasn’t defenseless. Matthews didn’t hit him in the head or below the knees. It was exactly what youth players all over the country grew up trying to emulate and yet the NFL doesn’t want it in its game.
Mind you, this wasn’t the same kind of hit Rodgers took last year against Minnesota. That was him throwing the ball, and linebacker Anthony Barr grabbing him, scooping him up and falling with all of his weight on him. That’s the type of hit the league can do without. Not one where the quarterback still has the ball and is trying to make a play.
Was Matthews’ hit violent? Hell, yeah, it was violent. Football is a violent game. Trying to legislate that out is foolish and it can only take you so far before you’re watching a game that you don’t recognize.
Whether that actually bothers the NFL is not really open for debate. It’s pretty clear the league doesn’t care what the viewing public thinks about the direction of the game. And that’s largely because that while the push back against the penalties has been strong, it’s not going to stop real fans from watching their team. The same people that are so passionate about how ridiculous the calls have been, are the same ones that will be back next week when Green Bay takes on Buffalo.
But that doesn’t mean the league should ignore it. In two straight weeks, the Packers had potentially game-changing plays taken away because of hits that no one outside of the league offices believe should be illegal. That’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.