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NFL rules need to change to protect mobile quarterbacks

Veteran NFL rule-maker, coaches say something must change for QBs such as Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson

The NFL has a dilemma, one that has been a long time coming but has arrived in full force. The league’s most important position, quarterback, is becoming its most explosive position.

But how will the league extend the same protection under NFL law to these dynamic new-age players, given the traditional pocket-passer quarterbacks they are replacing?

We are witnessing more than contrasting styles. This is the beginning of a permanent shift in a position that for nearly 60 of the NFL’s 100 years has been the sole province of white men. The position is rapidly changing colors, acceding to black capabilities, virtually overnight.

“The quarterback is the most important position in football,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week after practice. “It drives everything. That’s been true all the way back to Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham. It’s probably as true or more true today with [Peyton] Manning, [Tom] Brady and all of those guys.”

Harbaugh added: “This next generation of quarterbacks, it’s going to be just as true if not more true. I think the rules will have to be adjusted to protect those guys in terms of how they’re playing the game, and that will be the next step.”

Baugh and Graham competed in the late 1940s and ’50s and Manning and Brady dominated late 1990s and 2000s.

During those eras, the quarterback position was invested with all the qualities of the idealized white male: intelligence, grace under pressure, courage to hang in the pocket while ignoring the chaos swirling about, taking punishment and going back for more.

Conversely, young black quarterbacks typically were criticized for leaving the pocket too early, for “taking off,” for “scampering,” for their lack of discipline.

Today, escaping from the traditional pocket is recognized as a matter of common sense and survival. It’s an exciting play that puts unbearable pressure on opposing defenses as Houston’s Deshaun Watson did Saturday, as Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson has done all season, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes has done for the last two seasons and what Russell Wilson has done his entire career.

On Saturday, Watson performed magic: passing, running and miraculously escaping as he led Houston to a playoff victory over Buffalo. Later that evening New England’s Brady looked as outdated and obsolete as Watson looked cutting-edge. Brady was awkward and heavy-legged as Tennessee bounced the New England Patriots from the playoffs.

But now the protections extended to traditional pocket passers must be extended to quarterbacks who spend much of their lives outside the pocket.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz was knocked out of Sunday’s wild card game while he was treated as a runner as he started to run from the pocket. Seattle Seahawks defender Jadeveon Clowney, who hit Wentz helmet to helmet on a tackle, was not penalized. As the NFL looks at new rules, Clowney should have been flagged. As a result, Philadelphia lost its starting quarterback and the game turned on that one play.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (bottom) is hit by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (top) during the first quarter in a NFC wild card playoff football game.

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

“It’s pretty maximum pressure on the defense and I guess you can say it’s pretty maximum pressure on our rules,” said Joel Bussert, the NFL’s legendary rules guru. Before he retired in 2015, Bussert was the NFL’s senior vice president of player personnel and football operations. He is now a consultant with the league.

During a tenure that lasted more than 30 years, Bussert rewrote the modern NFL rulebook and was responsible for many of the rules designed to protect players.

The league has to come up with a set of rules to protect new-age quarterbacks who have an unprecedented skill set.

Under current NFL rules, there are five basic protections for quarterbacks formulated with traditional pocket passers in mind.

  • The one-step rule. After the quarterback releases the ball, the defender has to hit the quarterback before his second step hits the ground. After the second foot hits the ground, the defender cannot hit the quarterback.
  • Quarterbacks are protected against low hits in the pocket.
  • Quarterbacks are protected against intimidating and punishing acts: stuffing them into the ground, driving them down after they have thrown the ball and landing on them with all or most of a defender’s weight.
  • The quarterback is protected against hits to the head or hits by a defender’s helmet against the quarterback’s body.
  • After quarterbacks release the ball, they are protected. They cannot be hit late. If there is a turnover, a defender may not hit the quarterback until he assumes a distinctly defensive posture.

This is all well and good, but the current rules penalize the quarterback who leaves the pocket.

“When the quarterback goes outside the pocket and either continues moving with the ball without attempting to advance the ball as a runner, or throws while on the run, the quarterback loses the protection of the one-step rule and he loses the protection against the low hit,” Bussert said.

If quarterbacks stop behind the line of scrimmage and assume a passing posture, they retain the protection of the one-step rule and the protection against the low hit.

“This next generation of quarterbacks, it’s going to be just as true if not more true. I think the rules will have to be adjusted to protect those guys in terms of how they’re playing the game, and that will be the next step.” — Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh

“But when the quarterback breaks from the pocket and is rolling out, looking downfield for a receiver and preparing to throw, he loses the one-step protection because he is on the run,” Bussert said. “And the defender is on the run after him. The quarterback also loses protection against the low hit because the defender is going to lunge or dive after the passer who has now becomes an elusive target.”

Under current NFL rules, when quarterbacks give up on the pass and move forward they become “a pure runner.”

“Then you’ve got to permit the tackler the chance to bring him down,” Bussert said. “At that point, the passing protections come off.”

This complicated narrative is the source of the NFL’s dilemma in protecting the game’s most valuable assets. A style of play that for many years was devalued, frowned upon and dismissed as “alley-ball” has become must-see TV.

Even Seattle’s Wilson is a fan of this new breed.

After Sunday’s game against Philadelphia, Wilson said he was a fan of this young generation of quarterbacks who he played a large role in inspiring. “That’s a humbling thing for me just because I love watching those guys play,” Wilson said.

“Those guys are lights out. Mahomes and all the throws he can make and same thing with Jackson. Even Watson, I love watching him play, too. So I think it’s a cool time.”

If the NFL wants to keep the good times going, it had better find a way to protect this new breed of mobile quarterbacks.

The quarterback is still the most important player on the field, the one who drives everything, the one who sells the Chevy trucks. He does not become less important because he runs. He has become more important.

Matt Judon, the Baltimore Ravens veteran defensive end, concedes that under the old-school mentality, the defender wanted to put the offense’s best player out of commission. Defenders want to discourage the quarterback from running.

“As a defender I know that if I can get shot on a quarterback, I want it to be the hardest, cleanest shot I can take. I don’t want to cheap-shot him. I want to hit him hard to where he’s not scrambling anymore.”

That mentality is at cross-purposes with the NFL that for the last 25 years has encouraged more passing and wants more quarterback running as well. Fans love the excitement created when Josh Allen takes off on a 20-yard run, or when Watson bounces off two blitzing defenders, when Jackson fakes a defender out of his cleats, when Mahomes executes a mad-dash scramble and throws across his body for a long completion.

The quarterback is still the most important player on the field, the one who drives everything, the one who sells the Chevy trucks. He does not become less important because he runs. He has become more important.

Just as the NBA legitimizes the Eurostep to allow magical access to the basket, the NFL has to expand protection of the rules to mobile quarterbacks who live most of their lives outside the pocket.

The league wants exciting players in the game, not out of the game and defenders are getting the message.

“Lamar, Mahomes and Watson, you’ve got to protect these guys,” Judon said. “People want to see those guys. They are our franchise quarterbacks and they are the best of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The NFL has the job of protecting them. I just don’t know what that protection looks like.”

Neither does the league.

In any event, none of this is good news for the defense.

The league wanted more passing but rules makers like Bussert may not have envisioned runners who were excellent passers and excellent passers who were great runners. Nor could they have envisioned quarterbacks like Watson who don’t run to get out of bounds but run with power as Watson did on Saturday when he ran over Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer and carried him into the end zone.

In overtime Watson eluded two blitzing defenders, spun away, and eluded a lineman before completing a pass that set up the game-winning field goal.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson (bottom) of the Houston Texans rushes for a touchdown in the third quarter of the AFC wild card playoff game against the Buffalo Bills at NRG Stadium on Jan. 4 in Houston.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

How do you defend against that and simultaneously give them more protection?

Last week, I asked Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman what he thought about extending protection for mobile quarterbacks outside the pocket.

“That would be a game-changer,” he said. “Defensive players, right now, I hear them all the time. They’re not happy about how things are going as it is. It makes it hard on them, but I think there will be some tweaks.”

Before coming to Baltimore and working with Jackson, Roman worked with other quarterbacks who lived life mostly outside the pocket: Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo. Roman makes the case that preoccupation with staying in the pocket is overrated and life outside the pocket is much safer.

“To me, it’s an optical illusion,” he said of pocket passing being safer.

Roman pointed out that Jackson’s only injury this season occurred in the pocket during a game at Buffalo.

“I’ve been doing this for a while with mobile quarterbacks. It’s a question of control,” he said. “When you’re outside the pocket, in space, you’re in control, you’ve got decisions to make.’’

But the new-era quarterbacks still need protection from overzealous defenders who would like to knock them out of games or hand out pulverizing blows to discourage running.

The pocket is predictable.

“When those cleats are placed in the ground and those eyes are looking downfield, people are rushing you and blitzing with stunts and they’re coming from every angle, you have no control other than get rid of the ball and hope for the best,” Roman said. The notion of the pocket being nirvana and out of the pocket being like hell evolved because many of those who tried running looked like fish out of water.

Said Roman: “I think there have been many times that quarterbacks who were not used to being outside the pocket and running have looked so awkward doing it, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s he doing,’ because he did not have the skill set to do it well. But a guy like Lamar and mobile quarterbacks are in control.”

But the new-era quarterbacks still need protection from overzealous defenders who would like to knock them out of games or hand out pulverizing blows to discourage running.

The dilemma will deepen as more world-class athletes are being encouraged to play quarterback and offenses are being built around their strengths. The NFL cannot allow its latest cash cows to be targeted for abuse.

“The multiple skills of these players are challenging the defense,” Bussert said, “and they’re challenging our rules, too.”

The Lamar Jacksons of the world are causing nightmares for defensive coordinators as well as NFL rule makers, tasked with managing a seismic cultural shift.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.