Can you challenge roughing the passer? (2023 Update)

Throughout the course of a football game, there are many plays that are challenged or reviewed.  These challenges or reviews often change the outlook of the game and in some instances can even determine the outcome. 

One penalty that can have an enormous impact on the outcome of a game is a roughing the passer penalty. And if your team has just been called for a terrible roughing the passer penalty, you’re probably left wondering the obvious: Can you challenge roughing the passer? 

Update: No you cannot challenge roughing the passer. Roughing the passer is a judgement-call penalty, and judgement-call penalties (with the exception of pass interference in the NFL) are not reviewable. This applies to both college football and the NFL.

Roughing the passer penalties can be very frustrating for a fan base when these penalties are either 1) called when they shouldn’t have been called or 2) not called when they clearly should have been.

In this article, we will discuss roughing the passer penalty rules and explain in further detail why you can’t challenge this penalty.

Why can’t you challenge roughing the passer?

When a roughing the passer call (or lack of one) causes a major impact on the game, many fans are left wondering: can you challenge roughing the passer? As we discussed above, roughing the passer is not a reviewable play. Why not?

Roughing the passer is a judgement call, and therefore has not been included in the list of reviewable football plays. In 2019, the NFL voted to expand replay review to include pass interference (a judgement call), but despite this, roughing the passer still remains a play that is not reviewable. Pass interference is currently the only judgement call that can be reviewed. 

Things like first downs or touchdowns are not judgement calls. For example, whether or not a player made a first down can literally be measured.

But many penalties in the sport of football have to be judged in-game by an official. That’s why the officials exist. For example, was it holding or was it not holding? There isn’t a measuring stick for that. The responsibility to judge whether or not it was holding (etc.) is completely on the official.

The NFL in the past has not allowed these judgement calls to be reviewed, likely for two reasons:

1) Pace of play – The NFL did not want games to get bogged down by constant reviews. And even if the NFL limited the amount of reviews (like they currently do), there is a massive gray area on what could be potentially be reviewed during penalty reviews. Could a coach ask for the whole play to be reviewed for any type of penalty, or would they have to specifically identify a player and a penalty to be reviewed? The NFL likely did not want to go down that rabbit hole unless they had to.

2) Protect the Officials – By refusing to review judgement calls, the NFL protects its officials from enhanced and focused embarrassment. Although embarrassment can still happen (and does) when officials miss blatant calls, the NFL likely viewed the decision to not review judgement calls as a way to limit the amount of opportunities for officials to look bad.

But this all changed in 2019 when the league made a seismic shift in its decision, by vote of the owners, to allow pass interference (a judgement call) to now be a reviewable play. This includes both offensive and defensive pass interference, and non-calls. (source)

This rule is a trailblazer of sorts, becoming the first time in league history that a judgement call can be reversed due to a coach’s challenge. This decision was in response to the missed pass-interference call that greatly affected the outcome of the New Orleans Saints vs Los Angeles Rams NFC Title Game in 2018.

Because this decision has greatly impacted the landscape of in-game reviews, we can only assume that in the future, at some point, other judgement-call penalties will also be ruled as reviewable plays. And due to the fact that it can have a huge impact on the outcome of a game, perhaps roughing the passer will some day be reviewable.

What is roughing the passer?

Roughing the passer is defined in this way: any physical contact with the passer or a player that might be a passer that is judged to be unwarranted. Roughing the passer is a 15 yard penalty, or ½ the distance to the goal line depending on where the team is at on the field, and always results in an automatic first down.

The problem for defenders is football is a fast and violent sport where players, especially defenders, are forced to make split-second decisions. It can be difficult for defenders to pull back and not hit the quarterback in certain situations.

Nevertheless, the responsibility is on the defenders to not commit the illegal acts listed below that constitute roughing the passer, even if the passer is moving, ducking, curling up their body, or attempting to evade the rusher.

The physical actions that result in roughing the passer are constantly being changed as league officials try to protect quarterbacks as much as possible. Here are the physical acts that a player can commit this penalty (source):

  • If a defensive player makes unnecessary contact with the passer after they have released the ball, roughing the passer is called.  The defensive player has the responsibility to be aware of the whether or not the passer has the ball and only has one additional step after the passer has released the ball to hit the passer.  After one step, the rusher must try to avoid the passer.  If they don’t, then they will be called for roughing the passer.  If they make incidental contact or if they get blocked into the passer, then they will not be called for roughing the passer.  This is at the judgement of the referee.
  • A rusher must not commit an intimidating physical act (for example a violent follow through of a tackle) by excessively driving, wrestling, slinging, or throwing the passer into the ground.  This is the case even if the passer is the one who initiates contact.  When tackling the passer, who is deemed to be in a defenseless position, a player can’t unnecessarily throw him to the ground or land on top of him with all or most of his weight.  A rusher must wrap up the passer with their arms and tackle them without landing on them.
  • A rusher can’t illegally hit the passer with their helmet or facemask.  They also can’t use any part of their body to hit the passer in the head or neck area.  Illegally hitting the passer with their helmet or facemask is basically just lowering their helmet and hitting the passer with the crown of the helmet or hitting the passer in the head or neck area with their facemask or helmet.  Any incidental contact by the rusher with the non-crown part of the helmet or facemask isn’t considered illegal, as long as the contact isn’t to the head or neck area of the passer.
  • Clubbing the arm of the passer.  The defender is allowed to grasp, pull, or make normal contact with a passer’s arm, but not clubbing.  Essentially they aren’t allowed to swing their arm like a baseball bat at the quarterbacks throwing arm to force a fumble or incomplete pass.
  • A rusher can’t make forcible contact below the knee area.  Also, they can’t make any contact to the passer if the passer has one or both feet off the ground.  The only exception to this is if the rusher is blocked into the passer.

**A couple of notes on this, if a passer moves outside of the tackle box or tucks the ball down and becomes a runner, they lose the protection of the one-step rule and the low hit rule.  Also, because of these protections, the referee has to blow the play dead once a rusher has the passer in his grasp, instead of waiting until they get the quarterback to the ground.

Why is roughing the passer a penalty?

Why is roughing the passer a penalty anyway? Isn’t this tackle football? If those are your thoughts, you are not alone. Roughing the passer penalties are one of the most frustrating penalties to endure as a fan. Unfortunately, for the health and well-being of the league itself, it is also one of the most necessary.

The quarterback is one of the most important positions in all of sports, and is unquestionably the most important position in football.  High scoring games are fun for fans and grab attention and turn on TV sets. High level quarterback play is the most important key to a successful offense.

It is in the best interest of the NFL to make sure that its quarterbacks remain healthy. This helps protect and preserve the NFL brand. Roughing the passer penalty was created in order to help protect quarterbacks from getting hurt. 

The NFL benefits from superstars like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes. They don’t want these superstars to miss games. For example, can you name Patrick Mahomes’ backup without looking?

Most fans likely cannot. These superstars turn on TV sets, grab headlines, spur conversation, and drive excitement. Backup players do not. And the league knows this.

With this in mind, quarterbacks are protected as much as possible.  One of the ways they are protected, is to make sure that hitting them when they are vulnerable, hitting them in the head, or hitting them with excessive force is discouraged, hence the penalty (and possible fine). 

The way roughing the passer is called continues to grow and evolve and has been expanded many times due to the ways quarterbacks have been hurt in the past.  Every time a quarterback (at least a star quarterback) gets hurt, the league examines the play and tries to to find a way to keep that from happening again. 

A perfect examples of this is when Tom Brady tore his ACL from being tackled low when he was attempting a pass in week 1 of the 2008 season and when Aaron Rodgers was tackled by a defender and the defender landed on him (in 2017 vs Minnesota), causing damage to the star quarterback’s collar bone.  In both examples, in the following offseason the rule was expanded to make these types of plays illegal and subject to roughing the passer penalties. 

The NFL knows the quarterbacks are the faces of the league, so they will continue to do everything they can to keep them from getting hurt. This may not seem fair to the defenders, but it is important to remember that at the end of the day, the NFL is a business. And business is booming when star quarterbacks are on the field.

How can roughing the passer affect the outcome of the game?

Roughing the passer (and the 15 yard penalty and automatic first down that comes with it) can really change the outcome of a drive and whether or not an offense scores.  And who knows, quarterback pressures can even lead to passes being intercepted – so the penalty may even wipe away a turnover.

So, just when it seems like the defense makes a big stop or gets a turnover, it can all be undone by a roughing the passer penalty. When you combine the fact that some of these penalties are called when there was very little contact with the quarterback, these penalties can often times be hotly disputed calls. 

In a lot of circumstances, when a roughing the passer penalty is called, offenses go on to score points they may not have if the penalty hadn’t been called.  Obviously, gaining 15 free yards and an automatic first down in the middle of a drive is a huge boost to an offense.

Roughing the passer can also have a huge impact to the defenses moral because just when they think they have stopped the offense, suddenly they hit with 15 yard penalty and a new first down. There have been many games where a team went on to win because they received the benefit of a roughing the passer penalty at a crucial point in the game.

Joshua Lloyd

Joshua is lead content creator for basketball and golf at Sports Fan Focus. Golf is a passion of his and he enjoys both playing and watching golf in his spare time. To read more about Joshua, visit the SFF About Us page.

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