NFL Must Take Protection to the Max


I want to add a new line to NFL game summaries: quarterbacks injured. Toss in the type of ailment and maybe the expected length of absence. It should be a mandatory category, considering how rare it is these days for starting quarterbacks to finish an afternoon's work with all body parts functioning properly.

It's almost to the point where seeing at least one quarterback hurt per game is the norm. Let's see . . . on the opening weekend, Steve Young suffered a concussion, Stan Humphries dislocated a shoulder, John Friesz broke a thumb, Heath Shuler bruised his ribs, Rob Johnson severely sprained an ankle. Add in Mark Brunell and Kerry Collins from the preseason and Chris Chandler (concussion) from Week 2 and that is too many starters already feeling less than spiffy these days. Imagine what the count will be come midseason. Bet you want to see that Jeff Brohm-vs.-Danny Wuerffel matchup as badly as I do.

The easy way to explain this sad trend is to point fingers at those defensive bullies who dare to push the rules a bit too far by taking borderline cheap shots at these defenseless quarterbacks. But the culprits are not confined to the defensive side of the ball.

I am all for penalizing the renegades who still think it is OK to blindside a quarterback with their helmets under his chin. Brave move there. And how about those defenders who knife into a quarterback's knee, knowing the potential for injury this kind of sorry tackle could inflict? Fines may not be enough to deter such inexcusable action; suspensions would serve as better wake-up calls. This isn't football; it is simple assault by large, strong men traveling at a rapid rate of speed against fairly stationary targets. Maybe we're lucky more quarterbacks don't go down.

But some of the carnage could be stopped if the geniuses on the offensive side of the ball really cared just a little bit more about the guy who lines up behind center. Their fervor to score points and move the ball against the ever-increasing zone blitzes has made quarterbacks more vulnerable to injuries than at any other point in the history of modern football. Want to know where the game has changed the most in recent years? Focus on quarterbacks and blitzes.

Take a look at how most of the injuries are occurring. Linebackers are breaking free off blitzes and homing in on quarterbacks virtually unimpeded. A classic example came in the Redskins-Panthers opener. Carolina linebacker Lamar Lathon, coming untouched from the corner, unloaded on Gus Frerotte off a zone blitz. Frerotte somehow got up and spent the next few plays on the sideline before returning. He was fortunate he was able to come back at all.

If I want to protect my quarterback--if I really think he is that important--I spend much of the game keeping him out of situations where he has minimal protection. Indeed, I give him maximum blocking protection if that is the only way I can neutralize a blitz-happy foe. That means keeping one or two backs in the backfield to act as bodyguards, and maybe making sure I have a tight end whose main function is to knock back defenders, not scurry into the secondary as a receiver.

But this Sunday, watch how offenses go about attacking 1990s attack defenses. You want to blitz? OK, we will send out three or four or even five wide receivers and dare you to cover all of them. All we have to do is get the ball off faster than you can sprint to the quarterback. It becomes a game of brinkmanship: your blitz vs. my flood of receivers. Which gamble will prevail?

Meanwhile, Mr. Quarterback is an open target. If you have multiple receivers on patterns, no one is left to be a bodyguard. If the defense can break through the initial barrier formed by the offensive line, there is no one left to obstruct its path to the quarterback. So even if defenders don't arrive fast enough to sack him, they still can knock him down and rough him up. And those hits eventually take a physical toll that can be more effective than sacks. At best, quarterbacks become jittery; at worst, they get hurt.

But offensive coaches hesitate to call too often for what they label "max pro." That would be a concession to defenses, tilting the field in their favor. It would force their offensive schemes to be too conservative, too predictable. And offenses would rather gamble with the health of their quarterbacks than yield to defensive trends. The compromise, at least in the minds of these coaches, is to have their quarterback drop back quickly and unload as fast as possible. That's why you see fewer seven-step drops from quarterbacks; it has become a game of three or four steps, look and fire. And hope a defender isn't draped all over the quarterback as he throws.

Fans want marquee players playing, not walking around in casts. And that particularly means quarterbacks. Yet the league can't legislate common sense. NFL officials have been magnificent in their attempts to relieve as much pressure from quarterbacks as possible through rule changes and quick fines. If anything, I think the league office should be harsher. But these moves are not enough.

Head coaches and offensive coordinators have to help, too. They have to weigh the worth of their starting quarterbacks against their all-out assaults on gambling defenses. Somewhere between the extremes of either going into an offensive shell or playing Russian roulette with a quarterback's longevity is a compromise that will result in better protection while still presenting plenty of opportunities to score. Something as simple as seeing a defensive alignment that would leave a defender uncovered as he rushes the quarterback--and adjusting the blocking scheme accordingly to neutralize that tactic.

Otherwise, that "quarterback injured" category will continue to have plenty of entries. Too many.

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