Brandon Graham can look back at Super Bowl LII, more than seven months and exactly 33 regular-season roughing-the-passer penalties later, and recognize just how fortunate he was.
He had made the most consequential defensive play that night, surging through the marzipan-soft middle of the Patriots' offensive line, forcing the fumble and the turnover that assured the Eagles of their first NFL championship in 57 years. Yet he acknowledged Tuesday that he sometimes stops to ask himself: What if his left hand, the one he used to bat the football out of Tom Brady's right, had been six inches higher? What if he had slapped Brady not on the hand but on the helmet? Would an official have called a roughing-the-passer penalty? Would the Patriots have kept the ball? Would everything about that game have turned out differently?
"I think about that all the time, too, whenever I'm swiping my hands," he said. "I don't even want to nick the head."
These days, it seems as if a defensive lineman could neglect to gargle on a Sunday morning and, if he got too close to a quarterback, get whistled for roughing-the-passer on the basis of his halitosis alone. The frequency with which the infraction has been called and the dubious nature of some of those calls have been the most controversial story line of the NFL season so far. That average of 11 RTP penalties per week through Week 3 is nearly double last season's rate (6.3 per week). Yet one had to see only that ridiculous flag thrown Sunday against the Packers' Clay Matthews for carrying out a textbook tackle of the Redskins' Alex Smith to know that defenders didn't suddenly become twice as cruel to quarterbacks.
No, what's happening here is simple enough to understand. The 2017 season saw injuries sideline quarterbacks throughout the NFL: Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Andrew Luck, DeShaun Watson, Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Sam Bradford. The league and its mouthpieces can try to frame this as a safety issue, but it's more a financial one. Quarterback is the NFL's meal-ticket position. Quarterbacks are its most popular and highest-paid players, and its owners weren't about to have TV ratings plummet or talk shows dominated by backup-QB-related discussion. They want their superstars on the field, and they want points on the board.
So there were new rules banning defensive players from using their body weight to drive quarterbacks into the ground, and any sign that a blitzing linebacker's hand had brushed against a quarterback's head, no matter how gentle or glancing the blow, is cause for a penalty, and the surest bet in any NFL game now is that the referee will announce a penalty that insults everyone's intelligence. Too many of these calls are coming on plays that anyone who has watched football for five minutes knows are neither dirty nor excessive, and the evolution of the quarterback position has only complicated matters. It was one thing to have Lawrence Taylor teeing off on sitting ducks such as Ron Jaworski and Neil Lomax in the mid-1980s. It's another thing now that Wentz, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, and other quarterbacks are as big and as fast, or bigger and faster, than the defenders trying to track them down.
"As they're trying to increase protection for the quarterback, we're seeing more mobile quarterbacks, which makes it even more difficult because you have to tackle them like running backs," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "It's not like tackling a statue back there, where you might be able to control the action a little bit more. These guys are mobile. They're fast, they're strong, and they're becoming more like running backs. That's what makes it so difficult."
The Eagles have been among the league's most disciplined teams this season when it comes to roughing-the-passer penalties. (Or they're among the most fortunate, depending on how you look at it.) They've committed just one through three games, and when the NFL's competition committee, per an ESPN report, convenes by conference call next week to discuss the outbreak of RTP calls, the members can hold up Derek Barnett's fourth-down sack of Luck in the Eagles' 20-16 victory Sunday as the quintessential example of the way a quarterback ought to be handled.