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What should NFL do about protecting its QBs?

Keeping quarterbacks safe is an understandable priority for the league, but doing so is not without its challenges

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Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr looks to pass under pressure from Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones in Kansas City.

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr looks to pass under pressure from Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones during game Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

The NFL has a problem.

Another one — besides concussions and Deshaun Watson.

What should the league do about protecting quarterbacks?

Are they football players, or are they the equivalent of cops directing traffic on the field and no one can touch them?

Should they come right out with it and remove their shoulder pads and helmet and put them in flags? Is that where this is headed?

Or should they, as Troy Aikman suggested, “Take the dresses off” and allow them to be knocked around like everyone else? (For those who were offended by Aikman’s remark: Lighten up.)

For decades quarterbacks weren’t treated like Tiffany crystal, and somehow they survived and thrived — Sammy Baugh, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Len Dawson, Otto Graham, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, etc. They got knocked around like the other players. They would have laughed if someone had suggested otherwise. It is, after all, football. If they didn’t want to get hit, they could’ve played golf. Since then the NFL has adopted a series of rules designed to give special hands-off status to quarterbacks.

This has produced a lot of debate over the years and it did again recently because of controversial roughing-the-passer calls in two close games. During Monday’s Chiefs-Raiders game, Chris Jones was flagged for sacking Derek Carr — specifically, for landing on top of him. It would have been very difficult for Jones to land otherwise given the nature of this particular sack. Maybe he could’ve avoided it if there were such a thing as a 300-pound acrobat. As Jones noted himself, as he landed on top of Carr he actually put his hands down on the turf in a pushup position to prevent his full weight from falling on the quarterback.

This came the day after another controversial, game-altering call during the final minutes of the Falcons-Buccaneers game in which Grady Jarrett was penalized for roughing the passer during a sack of Tom Brady. Brady was trying to escape the pocket as the rush bore down on him; Jarrett did the only thing he could do — he stretched his arms to grab Brady around the waist before he could get away and, having made a sharp left turn, he naturally swung him around to bring him to the ground.

It wasn’t a hard hit or a hard landing and Brady’s head never made contact with the ground or with the tackler’s helmet. Furthermore, Brady had tucked the ball and was just leaving the pocket, which, by rule, means he was a ball carrier and not entitled to the special protection of a quarterback. Jarrett’s only alternative would have been to let Brady run away.

Brady himself called it, “a long unwelcome hug.”

“Just looking back on it, I’m still kind of left clueless on what I’m expected to do in that situation,” Jarrett told ESPN.

Exactly.

When Sports Illustrated noted that Jones did not bother to ask the referee for an explanation of the penalty, Jones responded, “There’s no need for an explanation. What am I going to go to him and say, ‘How should I tackle? How should I not roll on him?’ I’m trying my best. I’m 340 — 325 — pounds, OK? What you want me to do? I’m running full speed, trying to get the quarterback. What you want me to do? I braced my hands.”

Those two penalties generated outrage, but the NFL is in a difficult, if not impossible, position. The Brady and Carr sacks followed the recent, controversial concussions to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and another concussion to his replacement, Teddy Bridgewater. That has undoubtedly put referees on high alert.

Then there’s this: The league wants to protect its cash cows, quarterbacks. They are the most visible players in the game and the most important position in all of sports. They are paid hundreds of millions of dollars and they generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. They can’t do that on injured reserve. The rules have helped facilitate the era of the pass offense and a quarterback-driven league that has been wildly successful for generating fan interest (translation: money). 

So, how do you protect the quarterback from injury and keep him on the field while treating him like a real football player and being fair to the defense? You can’t.

Quarterbacks do play a vulnerable position — they are relatively stationary targets for freakishly big, fast men who are running full speed at them. The league has gone to great lengths to give them special treatment, but much of it is too subjective and open to interpretation. By rule, defenders are penalized if … 

… they take more than one step to hit the quarterback after he has thrown the ball; after the first step, he must find a way to avoid him, no matter how much momentum he has to back down.

This is a good rule in theory, but it forces the defender to make a split-second decision while in a dead sprint.

... they throw the quarterback to the ground or “unnecessarily wrestle him or drive him down” after the ball is out.

This is simply too much of a judgment call. Each sack demands different means to get the quarterback to the ground, and today’s quarterbacks require a lot of force to bring down. How do you judge what is unnecessary?

… they hit the quarterback when the latter is judged to be in a defenseless position during or just after throwing a pass.

Really? A defensive player is supposed to make a real-time decision about whether a QB is in a “defenseless position?”

... they “unnecessarily or violently throw (the quarterback) down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.”

Watch a replay of Jones’ sack of Carr. He couldn’t have landed anywhere but on top of the quarterback. He simply had too much momentum. The average size of today’s quarterback is now 6-foot-3, 225 pounds — the size of a lineman in the ’70s. How does the league expect defensive players to arm tackle that guy?

... they strike at or below the knee when one or both of the quarterback’s feet are on the ground.

Finally, a reasonable and simple rule.

Then there’s this doozy of a rule: “When the passer goes outside the pocket area and either continues moving with the ball (without attempting to advance the ball as a runner) or throws while on the run, he loses the protection of the one-step rule and the protection against a low hit, but retains the other special protections afforded to a passer in the pocket. If a quarterback attempts to advance the ball as a runner, he loses all of the special protections of the roughing-the-passer rule. However, if he throws while on the run, he regains all the special protections except the one-step rule and low hit rule. If he clearly establishes a passing posture, he is covered by all of the special protections for passers.

Did you follow that? Talk about convoluted.

The NFL also stipulates: “When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the referee should always call roughing the passer.

So everything is stacked in the quarterback’s favor. Quarterbacks are a protected species in the NFL.

There isn’t much the league can do except perhaps add the roughing-the-passer penalty to the growing list of penalties that are reviewable. As Jarrett said, “In full speed, it makes it look more malicious than it really is because the referees are human … so let’s just take a little bit off (their) plate and be able to review something like that ….”

In the meantime, quarterbacks are playing a different game than the rest of the players and it’s not fair.

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Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones sacks Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr during a game Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. Jones was flagged on the play on a controversial call, negating a turnover for the Chiefs.

Peter Aiken, Associated Press