TWO-STEP IS NOW OUTLAWED : It's the Latest Attempt by the NFL to Protect Vulnerable Quarterbacks

Times Staff Writer

The Chicago Bears' controversial quarterback, Jim McMahon, was minding his own business for a change last Nov. 23, standing quietly far behind the line of scrimmage, when Charles Martin of the Green Bay Packers ran up and mugged him long after a pass had been thrown.

For McMahon, shoulder surgery was next, although he tactfully said that the two incidents were not related.

Now, four months later, he says he is recovering nicely. He will begin throwing short passes this month and predicts that he will be a new man before opening day in September.

But the National Football League is still in shock. If McMahon has recovered, the NFL has not.

The unprovoked assault on a famous passer by a typically aggressive pass rusher in a high-visibility ballgame, has finally prodded the old league into action.

The NFL's owners have decided, at last, to provide more protection for their most valuable artisans.

At their annual convention in Hawaii last month, noting that McMahon was just one of many passers knocked out--both legally and illegally--last season, the owners tightened up two key rules.

Starting this season, they announced, a 15-yard penalty will be the reward for a pass rusher who:

--Hits a passer after taking more than one step toward him when the ball is gone.

--Body-slams a passer instead of tackling him normally.

Last year, legally, pass rushers could take two steps before crushing the quarterback after the ball had been thrown.

And in some cases they could legally slam him to the ground.

The changes seem slight, but that's the way the NFL operates, and, most of the time, its little modifications have major consequences.

Its leaders maintain that the pass-rushing changes will have that effect precisely. After all, there's a 100% difference between one step and two.

"We made a reel, I mean a tape, of all the plays when quarterbacks were injured and (sidelined) last year for even one play," Art McNally said the other day.

The NFL's supervisor of officials, McNally added: "The tape shows that most hits were legal under 1986 rules.

"That is, by the time the rusher had taken his second step, he had (hit and injured) the passer. Most of the time, it appears that he could have pulled up, but didn't.

"So the members of the competition committee asked themselves, 'Why didn't these guys pull up?'

"The answer is: They didn't have to. It was a legal hit.

"So the competition committee said, 'All right, let's tighten up the rules. Let's give them one step instead of two.'

"The owners agreed, and voted it in."

First reaction this spring has been mixed. Quarterbacks appreciate the changes, and Howie Long, the Raiders' all-pro defensive end, said: "This won't affect us much--I've only been flagged for one late hit in six years. But it will definitely (restrain) a lot of guys on other teams."

Then Long put his finger on a central issue.

"It will (restrain) them, I mean, if it's enforced. (What matters is) the way the referees interpret a rule."

Ram physician Robert Kerlan has the same doubts.

"I'm happy (the NFL) did something, because something had to be done," he said.

"The real problem, though, is interpretation and enforcement. The old rule would have protected the quarterbacks--if the officials had wanted to protect them. But there has been a general feeling among officials that quarterbacks are big boys, big enough to take care of themselves.

"Referees get a lot of heat from other players, you know, for overprotecting quarterbacks. The upshot is that they've let pass rushing degenerate into seek-and-destroy missions. Mayhem was allowed in the NFL last year. Mayhem--after the ball was long gone--was just part of the game.

"The officials didn't have to let this happen. And what happens now depends more on their interpretation of the new rule than the way the new rule actually reads."

In recent years, Kerlan and Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, have been outspoken advocates of more protection for NFL quarterbacks.

This year Walsh got to do something about it. He was appointed to the competition committee, where he helped write the new rule.

"I think we've got one that's about as strong as could be written," he said.

"Sure, it's still up to the officials' interpretation, but there's a change of philosophy and emphasis that will help (the officials). From now on, a pass rusher must assume personal responsibility for knowing, himself, where the ball is.

"He can't hide behind not being able to see it, and the officials know he can't hide. That takes some of the judgment out of this judgment call.

"If the ball is gone and the rusher takes more than one step before he makes contact, it's automatic. It's roughing the passer."

At the Raider camp in El Segundo, Long agreed that some of the heat has been taken off the referees.

"They won't have to worry about making waves now," he said. "In the past, sometimes, I've thought they were content with just not making a call.

"But there's another problem that does concern me. How can a referee judge whether I've taken 1 step, 1 1/2 steps or 2 steps? Everything happens so quickly in there that nobody has time to count."

The question was passed on to McNally in New York.

"The answer is that officials don't look at (pass rushers') feet," he said. "They don't count steps.

"You go on experience and feel. After 10 years (as an official) you have a sense of timing.

"The guidelines have been spelled out clearly:

"One, the passer has completed his throwing motion and the ball is gone.

"Two, the rusher can hit him right now.

"Three, if there's any delay before he hits him, he'd better be easing up.

"If he doesn't ease up, it's 15 yards."

Pro football kickers live in the best of all possible worlds. To make a living, they don't have to hit anyone, and no one is allowed to hit them.

The NFL has long been under pressure to give passers equal protection: If the ball is gone, no hitting permitted.

But some critics speculate that because so many officials are old linemen and running backs, they'll never give the breaks to a quarterback, anyway, regardless of how the rule reads.

Only one former NFL quarterback is serving on an officiating crew today. He is Pete Liske, a back judge who doesn't want to get into the argument.

"In late hits, the question is usually one of intent," said Liske, who in his other life in Seattle is an assistant athletic director at the University of Washington.

"The films don't show you intent--whether the (pass rusher) could have pulled off or not--and the films are all I have to go on.

"As a back judge, I never get involved in quarterback hits during the game."

In his playing days at Philadelphia and Denver, did he get involved? Did he wish for more protection for quarterbacks?

"As a player, I didn't give it a thought," Liske said. "It has always seemed to me that your offensive line is more important than any rule."

At his New York office, McNally said he doubts that sympathy for or against a quarterback ever figures in an official's decision.

"The training of an official, over a period of many, many years, is to make the call the way (the league) wants it made," he said.

"That's the way they're disciplined. What's in their minds is that we'll be all over them if they don't."

At the Raider camp, Long wants the last word.

"The one thing I'd most like to see is more protection for the rest of us," he said.

"Why do they just protect 1 of 22 players? We need protection, too.

"I'll give you an example. The only place on the entire field that clipping is legal is the interior line. That's where we work.

"In every game, I'm within one play of my career being ended by a dirty play. That doesn't seem right to me. It isn't right that clipping is illegal everywhere except where (the defensive line) plays."

Walsh agrees that it isn't right, but that a change is hard to legislate.

"There's so much action in the interior line that you can't differentiate between clips and non-clips in there," he said. "It's hard (for an official) to watch one individual to see if he got turned around just before he was blocked. That kind of block wasn't a clip when it was thrown."

Thinking that over, Long said: "A lot of downfield clips are legal blocks, too, when thrown. Players are always getting turned around before they're hit.

So are quarterbacks.

"I don't mind helping quarterbacks," Long said. "They're nice guys, and God knows they need the money. But so do we."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World