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The NFL And Roughing The Passer Calls: Who's Getting Preferential Treatment?

Every week, the NFL generates a couple of storylines that have the media and fans collectively hyperventilating. One of those topics this week was Michael Vick's complaint that he wasn't getting enough roughing the passer calls:

"I felt like I got hit late," Vick said via "No flag. Broke my hand. That’s it. Trying to protect myself. Didn’t get a flag. And that’s pretty much been the story for the last three weeks. Obviously, at some point, something catastrophic is going to happen, and I broke my hand."

Vick didn't break his hand after all, and later backed off his initial criticism, whereupon the league decided not to fine him about his comments about the officiating. However, it didn't take long for Mike Pereira, former NFL V.P. of Officiating, to jump into the melee and say that Vick should have been fined. Pereira then piled on, calling Vick's complaint a bunch of bull, and said the Eagles were notorious complainers about roughing the passer calls, be it with McNabb or Vick under center.

On Thursday, Pereira then published a list of QBs and the number of Roughing The Passer calls per 100 attempts, which showed Vick close to the top - and Tony Romo at the very bottom! A collective cry of indignation went up in the virtual BTB editorial offices, and yours truly was dispatched from his virtual cubicle to investigate. My report after the jump.

While this post is not strictly about Michael Vick, I can't help but get one more observation in. Long before he injured his non-throwing hand, we noticed in the early games open thread on Sunday that Vick was being repeatedly helped up off the ground by the refs, which is highly unusual all by itself:

Do the refs regularly help QBs to their feet? Never noticed it before, but I’ve seen it twice with Vick today.
by One.Cool.Customer on Sep 25, 2011 3:00 PM EDT
     that's a negative
     by KD Drummond on Sep 25, 2011 3:00 PM EDT
     Yeah, I don't get it... Why just Vick?
     LDVFootball on Sep 25, 2011 3:01 PM EDT
     nope But its philly, other than a fictional boxer they don’t have any winners
     by thebigham on Sep 25, 2011 3:01 PM EDT
     Probably taking the opportunity to look in his eyes and see if he's still conscious.
     by Fernie67 on Sep 25, 2011 3:01 PM EDT
     Only the 'dreamy' ones. The NFL is so obviously trying to keep Vick on the field.
     jstaubach on Sep 25, 2011 3:01 PM EDT

This was so out of the ordinary that we can't help but wonder whether perhaps the refs holding Vick's hand squeezed a little too hard?

Roughing The Passer (RTP) in the NFL

ROUGHING THE PASSER: Because the act of passing often puts the quarterback (or any other player attempting a pass) in a position where he is particularly vulnerable to injury, special rules against roughing the passer apply. The Referee has principal responsibility for enforcing these rules. Any physical acts against passers during or just after a pass which, in the Referee’s judgment, are unwarranted by the circumstances of the play will be called as fouls. [Official  NFL Rule Book]

This passage is followed by eight further subsections in the official rule book, making this one of the more complex penalties in the NFL. 

It's a widely held belief that the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees get their unfair share of wussy RTP calls, and that other quarterbacks - particularly non-SB winning QBs - get hit all the time and don't get as many calls. Heck, there's even a "Brady rule" in the rule books, and if you've ever watched a Patriots game, you can't have failed to notice that Brady is constantly complaining to the refs about the hits he takes.

And if you're a fan of a team like the Cowboys, you're probably convinced that your undrafted free agent quarterback gets speared, body slammed and stuffed to the ground ALL THE TIME and NEVER gets a call.Think about it. Can you remember a single RTP call in Romo's favor?

Mike Pereira's numbers suggest that that is exactly what is happening, but we wouldn't be doing our due diligence if we didn't look at the numbers ourselves.

Roughing The Passer: The Numbers

Before we go any further, here's an important caveat as we consider the RTP penalties: The numbers in this post are strictly RTP penalties. They are not  personal fouls, unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. So if you remember a couple of calls that don't show up in this post, that might still be correct, although they might have been coded as a different type of penalty - or my data may simply be faulty. 

The first thing that pops out when you look at the overall RTP numbers is that the officials don't call a lot of RTP penalties at all. Here's how many RTP calls were made in each of the last four years.

Roughing the passer calls, 2007-2010, Reg. Season
Year 2007 2008 2009 2010
Penalties 59 59 69 84

On average over the last four years, each NFL team got about two RTP calls in its favor. That's not much. So if you're an NFL QB and think you're not getting enough calls, well, booo hooo hooo, get in line. Nobody is getting a lot of calls.

But surely, the Patriots or Colts must get a lot more calls in their favor than other teams, right? Not exactly. Here are all 32 teams ranked by number of RTP penalties called in the last four years.

Rank Teams RTP calls
1 BUF 17
2 OAK 14
T8 DET, SF 11
T10 NO, STL, TB 10
T22 HOU, KC, SD, SEA 6
30 DAL 4
T31 BAL, PHI 3

The Bills and the Raiders lead the table with their rotating staffs at quarterback? At first glance I'd argue that this should put to rest any remaining notion of preferential treatment for star quarterbacks - as measured by RTP penalties. Some other observations:

  • The Patriots appear to have a fairly high count, but only eight of those calls were for Brady, two were for Cassel, two for Hoyer.
  • The Colts have a close to average seven calls in four years, with three each in '08 and '09, and a single '10 (hat tip to eaglelover1).
  • Six different QBs contributed to Oakland's rating, four to Buffalo's.
  • Donovan McNabb did not get a single call in his favor in Philly from '07-09, but got three calls in Washington last year. As much as it pains me to write this, the Eagles do have a point here. Not a single call in three years? That's a bit much.
  • Michael Vick got three calls in his favor last year. Only Jay Cutler (5), Carson Palmer (4), Drew Brees (4), Sam Bradford (5) and Jason Campbell (4) had more. However, All of these quarterbacks started in more games than Vick in 2010.
  • Tony Romo got only one RTP call in the last four years. Kitna has two and Brooks Bollinger got one in his brief and ill-fated play for the Cowboys.

Here's an overview of some of the bigger, still active QB names and the number of RTP calls they've gotten over the last four years.


Name Team RTP calls Name Team RTP calls Name Team RTP calls
Jay Cutler DEN/CHI 11 P. Manning IND 7 Favre GB/NYJ/MIN 4
Brees NO 10 Orton CHI/DEN 6 Hasselbeck SEA 4
Ryan ATL 10 Palmer CIN 6 Roethlisberger PIT 4
Fitzpatrick CIN/BUF 9 Rivers SD 6 McNabb PHI/WAS 3
Garrard JAC 9 Schaub HOU 6 Vick PHI 3
Brady NE 8 Bradford STL 5 Flacco BAL 1
Campbell WAS/OAK 8 Cassel NE/KC 5 Romo DAL 1
Edwards BUF/JAC 8 Jackson MIN 5 Young TEN 1
Hill SF/DET 7 Kitna DET/DAL 5      
Rodgers GB 7 E. Manning NYG 4    

As you look at this list, keep in mind that the number of starts and pass attempts vary significantly between some of the names on the list. Brees and Cutler for example started in all but one of the 64 games over the last four years while others on this list played a lot less.

If anybody has a right to complain, it's Tony Romo. Romo's one call came in the final game of the 2009 season, the 24-0 win over the Eagles:

(2:33) T.Romo pass incomplete deep middle to K.Ogletree. Pass incomplete on deep middle post; incomplete at the Philadelphia 5. PENALTY on PHI-M.Fokou, Roughing the Passer, 15 yards, enforced at PHI 49 - No Play.

That's it. Romo has suffered his share of late hits, spears and body slams, yet got only that one single flag in four years. He didn't even get a flag in his favor when linebacker Willie McGinest hit Romo in the chin with his helmet in the third quarter of the 2008 season opener against the Browns, and opened a large, bloody gash on his chin that required 13 stitches after the game.

Remember how after that game, despite 13 fresh stitches in his chin, Romo stopped on his way home to help an old couple who had trouble with a flat tire?

Vick, with only a bruised hand, didn't even stop to pet a dog after the win over the Giants.

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