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Column: How NFL rules favoring quarterbacks have led to fewer interceptions

Raiders safety Karl Joseph intercepts a pass from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on Nov. 7.
Raiders safety Karl Joseph (42) intercepts a pass from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on Nov. 7 at RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland.
(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

The Oakland Raiders plucked three Philip Rivers passes out of the sky Thursday night in a 26-24 victory over the Chargers.

That was not only a bad night for Rivers, but an increasingly rare occurrence in the NFL, where interceptions simply aren’t happening at the rate they once did.

To put it in perspective, there were 12 interceptions league-wide in Week 9, which according to ESPN is the fewest in a week with at least seven games since at least 1936. So with his hat trick of horrors, Rivers singlehandedly accounted for 25% of the total pick tally of the week before.

There’s a pretty straight-line correlation between interceptions and a team’s won-lost record. For instance, of the eight quarterbacks with the most picks this season, only one — Dak Prescott (eight) of the Dallas Cowboys — plays for a team that currently has a winning record.

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Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston lead the league with 12 interceptions each, and both the Browns and Buccaneers are 2-6.

The Chargers had a prime opportunity to score points and potentially steal a win against the Oakland Raiders, but Philip Rivers couldn’t move the offense.

Conversely, the list of regular starters with the fewest interceptions is populated by winning quarterbacks: Seattle’s Russell Wilson (one), Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (one), Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (three), Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins (three), Indianapolis’ Jacoby Brissett (three) … with the lone exception being Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky (three), whose offensively inept Bears are 3-5.

The San Francisco 49ers had a jaw-dropping statistic last season. Their defense finished the year with just two interceptions — neither by cornerbacks — the fewest ever recorded by a team in a single season. Their seven takeaways were the fewest on record, too, worse than the 1982 Baltimore Colts (11) — and that came in a strike-shortened season.

That wasn’t entirely about the futility of the 49ers. Football has changed, and defenses are handcuffed by rules aimed at protecting quarterbacks and defenseless receivers.

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In a text response about why interceptions have dropped off of late, Richard Sherman, All-Pro cornerback for the 49ers, wrote: “The league makes it tough. Harder to hit QB, so less errant passes. Everyone has to be careful not to touch them in the head or land on them or hit their legs. Back before these rules, QBs would be concussed [and] still playing and throwing it, so they would be less accurate.”

Interceptions have always been bad, but they weren’t always quite the dirty word they are now. A lot of great quarterbacks racked up a lot of picks during their careers, back when the receiving windows were smaller and throwers seemingly took more risks to squeeze passes into tight places.

In fact, of the 10 quarterbacks with the most career interceptions, six are in the Hall of Fame: Brett Favre (336), George Blanda (277), Fran Tarkenton (266), Johnny Unitas (253), Dan Marino (252) and Y.A. Tittle (248). And a seventh on that list — Peyton Manning (251) — will be enshrined in Canton soon enough.

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, now a Fox analyst, largely agrees with Sherman’s hypothesis.

“I think the biggest reason interceptions have been down for a while is quarterbacks aren’t as worried about getting blown up the way that my generation was, and those before me,” Aikman said. “I’ve seen quarterbacks do things on film where I’m like, `You’ve got to be kidding me.’ And they’re not even touched. I mean, three rushers have gotten in on them, and they pull up because they don’t want to be penalized. So that buys quarterbacks just a split-second more to be able to see things.

“The other part of it is, on the other end, defenders are kind of afraid to make plays on balls, or contested balls, the way they once did, in fear of being penalized.

“With all of that, it’s become much more difficult for these guys to be able to make plays on the ball .… I’ve always said that if you give a quarterback time and they’re playing zone coverage in today’s NFL, defenses have no chance. Quarterbacks will just pick you apart.”

New York Jets linebacker Tarell Basham New York Giants guard Nick Gates battle for position during a preseason game Aug. 8 at MetLife Stadium.
New York Jets linebacker Tarell Basham, left, and New York Giants guard Nick Gates battle for position during a preseason game Aug. 8 at MetLife Stadium.
(Elsa Garrison / Getty Images)

Green jerseys, blue language — The New York Giants and Jets will play each other Sunday in what will be just their 14th regular-season meeting ever.

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Former Giants tight end Brian Saxton, who grew up going to Jets games at Shea Stadium and later the Meadowlands, gave his take on the different fan bases:

“With the Giants, I felt like it was an older crowd, a quieter crowd,” he said. “The stadium wasn’t buzzing quite the way it was at Jets games.

“As a kid going to Jets games, I always learned a couple new words every time I went.”


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