The toll of quarterbacks in the National Football League this year reached a high Sunday when 5 more went down.
In a 28-team league, 17 quarterbacks have been forced out by injuries--in only the first 6 weeks of the 16-week season--and at least 12 are still out.
The toll is 18 if you count Jim McMahon twice to account for his new injury, the concussion that leveled him again Sunday. It’s 19 if you include illness--Doug Williams’ appendicitis.
Will anybody be left for the playoffs? That’s hard to say.
Why are so many quarterbacks going down? That’s easier:
For the most part, they have only themselves to blame. As passers, they are being too brave--too imprudently courageous.
To complete passes these days against the NFL’s increasingly intricate defenses, they have concluded that the first requirement is the patience to hang in the pocket until a receiver can find his way clear.
For most quarterbacks, this means that repeated hits are unavoidable. And so, in time, are injuries, when the hitter weighs nearly 300 pounds to the quarterback’s 200.
That much has long been obvious. What’s just now becoming obvious, though, is that the NFL’s many rule changes of recent years--those designed to protect and preserve quarterbacks--are proving ineffective or even counterproductive. Thus:
--When the league legislates against hitting quarterbacks after they have delivered the ball, they simply get bolder and stand longer in the pocket before taking the same shot, or a tougher one.
--When the league legislates against hitting quarterbacks in the face, they simply grow bolder, stand longer in the pocket, and eventually take the shot anyway, only this time in the knees, which can be worse than a head shot.
In the NFL today, if the name of the game is “get the quarterback,” it’s a curious fact that the quarterback is playing the game, too.
The mathematics of this year’s injury epidemic have reached frightening proportions on some clubs. The Detroit Lions have lost starting quarterback Chuck Long with a knee injury and backup Eric Hipple with a broken ankle.
At Cleveland, 3 quarterbacks have been knocked out, starter Bernie Kosar with a severe elbow injury on opening day, backup Gary Danielson with a broken leg, and his backup, Mike Pagel, with a separated shoulder.
The Indianapolis Colts, favored in the AFC East, probably lost their best chance to repeat when injuries subtracted starter Jack Trudeau and then his promising rookie backup, Chris Chandler. Though defeated at Buffalo Sunday, the Colts led, 10-0, in the first quarter before a shot to the breastbone knocked out Chandler.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Art Modell, the Browns’ owner.
At Buffalo, quarterback Jim Kelly said: “You just hope the next one isn’t you.”
Virtually the only injury-free quarterback of modern times has been Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, who started his 76th consecutive game in the Coliseum Sunday. And Marino is a little different.
First, as a passer, he has the fastest release in football, one that keeps most defensive players at arm’s length. Second, after 6 years in the league, Marino has acquired the nervousness to let the ball go faster than ever now, as soon as he sees, out of the corner of an eye, danger coming.
Accordingly, almost alone among the league’s senior quarterbacks, Marino has kept his good health over a significant period of time. True, he has also become as erratic as any other NFL passer--and therefore no longer the devastating force he used to be. But he’s still whole. And who can knock anyone for that?
The leading cause of injuries on the pro level seems to be hard but legal and unavoidable contact--not deliberately illegal contact. A player is hit at what for him is the wrong time. He is hit from the side just as he has placed all his weight on one foot. Or he is hit from another angle when he is in a momentarily awkward but inescapable position.
Dr. Danny Fortmann so concluded several years ago after a survey of NFL games. A Hall of Fame lineman for the 1940s Chicago Bears, Fortmann, who became a Los Angeles surgeon, said:
“Freak accidents lead to more incapacitating injuries than any other one thing in NFL games.”
This probably goes double today for quarterbacks, who are in the center of almost every storm, who are buffeted regularly by flying bodies, whose goal is to complete every pass at all costs, and who are the focus of the single-minded attention of some of the biggest, fastest and meanest of all athletes: the NFL’s defensive linemen and linebackers.
The pass rush, to be sure, has always been one tactic, one thing, in defensive football. The coach who made it the only thing is Buddy Ryan, the defensive leader of the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl team, now the leader of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Designed solely to get the quarterback, Ryan’s 46 defense has been borrowed in recent years by most teams, including, finally, the Rams this year. Incorporating some variations, the Rams have left intact Ryan’s main element--two linebackers lining up hip to hip at one end of the line.
No offense can guess, routinely, which of them will be blitzing the passer while the other drops back. That’s why Ryan designed the Eagle defense. That’s why it works. That’s why quarterbacks regret the day that Ryan was born.
Even so, most quarterbacks are still hanging in impetuously, still trying to win, still going down with injuries.
Darryl Rogers, Detroit coach, on quarterback Long’s new backup, former Raider Rusty Hilger: “Rusty will be OK. All we have to do is pump 6 months of work into him in 4 days.”
Marty Schottenheimer, Cleveland coach, on losing three quarterbacks: “If you look at all the circumstances, I don’t think there’s anything in the rules that might have prevented what happened to us.”
Bill Parcells, New York Giants coach, on the difference between the Rams and the others in their division: “The (NFC) West has 3 good teams, but San Francisco and New Orleans have difficult schedules.”