Roughing The Passer - He Who Cannot Be Touched
One of the reasons I started this site was to try and give context to all those things we "know" are true when it comes to who-gets-called-for-what. Depending on the claim sometimes the numbers are all you need. If someone claims so and so leads the league in Defensive Pass Interference then that's a straight numbers argument. Other times the sheer numbers will never be total proof, because we'll never know how many should have been called. In some cases the numbers can even be deceiving. If someone claims that "[Player] or [Team] always get away with Defensive Pass Interference", then the numbers might not be totally helpful. It's perfectly reasonable, for example, that the team that "gets away with the most pass interference" is also among the top of the league in getting flagged for DPI. So simply showing a person that [Player] or [Team] actually get called for it all the time doesn't actually disprove the claim. Think of that person you know with the most speeding tickets. That person probably speeds more often (or more egregiously) than other people you know. Also, since no one gets caught every time, this person likely "gets away with speeding" more than anyone you know.
Generally speaking though having the numbers does point us in a direction. Even in the cases where it's not a straight numbers argument the numbers can still hold enough sway to allow us to say what's probably true, probably not the case, what's true-but-trivial, what holds up enough to justify more looking into, and so on.
He Who Cannot Be Touched
There is one claim out there that I often joke to people that know I run this site is responsible for half the traffic to it. This one claim gets argued again and again with different people on different sides of it linking to the same pages to both prove and disprove the legend. There is a QB out there that everyone knows in their heart of hearts cannot be touched without drawing a "Roughing the Passer" penalty. Well, I'm here to end it. It's true, all of it. There is a QB out there who gets more roughing the passer calls than anyone else, it's by a country mile, and it's exactly who everyone thinks it is.
You cannot touch Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Tom Brady, on the other hand, languishes decidedly middle of the pack.
One of the more frequent questions I get asked is if I have any page which lists which quarterbacks get the most calls in their favor. When I look at the forum post or the twitter conversation 99% of the time they're trying to prove or debunk that everyone who looks at Tom Brady cross-eyed gets a roughing flag. Unfortunately I had to tell people I only had that data by team. This got people most of the way there but was obviously imperfect. Even if Tom Brady started most games for the Patriots, he didn't start all of them. (For example, if you were playing close attention you might have heard he missed the first 4 weeks of this season for his role in "Deflategate". The Sports Media didn't cover it much.) If a QB's backup got roughed that made it look like the main QB got a call he didn't.
In the big picture those things might balance out, however, I now have this page - Roughing the Passer By Quarterback. On this page you will find the roughing the passer penalties where that QB was actually the victim. Furthermore unlike virtually all other pages on the site where the number of games is team games this page does attempt to only count games in which the QB played. The page includes all quarterbacks who played in at least 40 games since 2009. I set a cutoff because it can be hard to compare the data on the quarterbacks people care the most about if the page is full of players who played in one game, attempted a handful of passes, and happened to get roughed. More importantly though too few games/attempts and we have a sample size issue that renders the data meaningless. One more, or one fewer, roughing call than "expected" has a larger impact the fewer games a QB has played in. I tried to pick a cutoff where the list wasn't limited to the dozen QBs with 6 full seasons under their belt, but wasn't full of backups either. This page will update as more games happen same as any other, so the numbers below will change starting with the 2017 season. The cutoff number is subject to change as well.
So where are we at? 2009 to 2016
There are 38 quarterbacks currently on the list. Ryan Fitzpatrick has drawn 32 flags, the next closest is Aaron Rodgers with 27. If you note how quickly this list drops into the single digits, and how few names are on it in general, you'll realize 5 is a pretty significant difference. Tom Brady is 9th with 21. However Brady has played in more games than anyone on the list, and significantly so for most of these guys. He's played 33 more than Ryan Fitzpatrick, more than 2 entire seasons' worth of games. Brady has only one more than Ryan Tannehill, despite playing in 64 more games than Tannehill. Brady is tied for 17th per game, and tied for 21st per 100 pass attempts.
So what does this mean for the Brady myth? I mean it's totally dead, right? Well. Maybe. This is a place where the numbers don't immediately tell the whole story on their face. Let's hypothesize for a moment that this list is really mainly an indictment of a team's offensive line. If you have a bad line you're going to get hit a lot and some of those hits will be flagged. Conversely if you have a good line you're going to get hit less frequently, so simply having fewer calls doesn't "prove" anything. Some might then say "Well yeah, he's middle of the pack, but maybe Tom gets hit way less, but when he does, watch that flag fly." And by "some might" I mean "I've seen 32,983 people make this argument".
This is where the "Per Sack" numbers can help us. Pressures or hits might be better, but sacks are the best I can do given the data I have. In this case Brady still doesn't fair much better. He currently ties 15th in terms of Roughing per Sack.
My personal opinion on it is that there's not nothing to the argument that Brady "just has always had a good line". In terms of sacks per attempt he fares better than all but a 4 on this list. The question then becomes "Is that relevant?" If you compare sacks per attempt and roughing the passer calls per attempt there's virtually no correlation between the two.
I'd say the numbers point us in the direction of the "You can't touch Brady" claim being on some very shaky ground. It's hard to find any perspective to put the roughing numbers in where Brady bubbles near the top, let alone rockets to infinity and beyond. Even if we just pull all the way back to the raw counts: Brady only got 1-2 flags for roughing in 5 of the last 8 seasons. Those are well within the range of pure happenstance, given hundreds of dropbacks per season. For example: he attempted 611 passes in 2011 and got one roughing call. There's just plain not a ton of "room" for conspiracy there. Maybe..maybe...there's still some loose "quality over quantity" argument to be made, but it's safe to say it's false to imply the Patriots are riding any sort of significant roughing the passer wave to multiple championships.
Getting All The Calls
Personally I've never understood why "[QB] gets all the calls" always always always turns into a roughing the passer debate anyway. First, roughing the passer just doesn't happen that often in general. One gets called about once every 200 pass attempts. In 2016 they happened about once every 3 games. No one is living and dying by roughing the passer. On their own they barely rise above statistical noise. Secondly, there are more penalties involved in a quarterback "getting all the calls" than roughing the passer. What makes It especially odd that people never look beyond roughing is to me is that if you look at who benefits from passing penalties in general the numbers actually shake out to be more or less the case that "who we all think get the calls", are indeed getting the calls.
Other Things To Note
Cam Newton is tied for 6th on the list, which contains 2 seasons he wasn't even in the league for. He's tied for 5th per game and alone in 5th per 100 attempts. Aside from the goose egg in 2015, which seems to be the exception more than the rule, the refs don't seem to be afraid of tossing a flag in Cam's direction. Only RTP magnet Ryan Fitzpatrick has more (1) since Cam was actually in the league. Once again it can be more of a "yeah but he gets hit more" argument but, just as before, the numbers point to the claim "the league isn't protecting Cam like they do the other QBs" being iffy, at best. (And that's even ignoring that there are "when the QB is a runner" nuances to Roughing the Passer that a mobile QB is obviously more often going to qualify for.)
Peyton Manning apparently couldn't buy a Roughing the Passer call down the stretch. At the pace established since 2009 Peyton Manning would have to had to play 20 games to see one flag land next to him. Cam Newton has to play 4. Ryan Fitzpatrick has to play about 3 and quarter.
There is an idea out there that the NFL doesn't protect the..."athletic" quarterbacks as much as the..."non athletic" ones. It's looking iffy that the data backs that claim up.