Inside Slant: QB scrambles = injuries

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
10:45
AM ET
Like Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, I'm concerned about the number of injuries to quarterbacks this season. I don't want to see a matchup between Seneca Wallace and Josh McCown, while Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler stand on the sideline, any more than you do.

I'm less optimistic, however, that there is a rules-based solution to this development. A closer look at the specific instances this season reveals that, if anything, the quarterbacks are as much to blame as anyone. Most of the injuries have come during scrambles or designed runs, not while throwing from the pocket.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsAaron Rodgers broke is collarbone on this hit at the end of a scramble against Chicago.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Blandino suggested an expansion of protection rules to cover quarterbacks regardless of the posture they are taking -- run or pass -- in the pocket. In reality, adding to that rule would be a first step toward the only official edict that can truly curtail quarterback injuries: The red jersey, which would outlaw all contact on a quarterback.

A better way out is for quarterbacks and coaches to conduct a more rigorous risk-reward analysis for their movement outside of the pocket. That's where the injuries are occurring, and lord knows we don't want the NFL to start protecting quarterbacks after they've tucked the ball and decided to run.

This season, we've seen injuries to eight preferred starters in the NFL. Let's take a quick look at how each happened:

  • Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles) strained his hamstring while running.
  • Brian Hoyer (Cleveland Browns) tore his ACL while getting tackled at the end of a scramble.
  • EJ Manuel (Buffalo Bills) sprained his knee on a hit near the sideline at the end of a scramble.
  • Cutler tore a groin muscle on a routine, legal sack after he had stepped up in the pocket.
  • Rodgers fractured his collarbone on a hit at the end of a scramble.
  • Jake Locker (Tennessee Titans) broke his foot on a non-contact play in the pocket. (Earlier this season, Locker injured his hip on a violent hit in the pocket.)
  • Sam Bradford (St. Louis Rams) tore his ACL at the end of a scramble.
  • Christian Ponder (Minnesota Vikings) dislocated his shoulder at the end of a scramble. (Ponder also suffered a rib injury this season but the exact play could not be pinpointed.)

NFL teams have always appreciated a quarterback's ability to buy time in the pocket, and the more recent emergence of the read-option and packaged plays has placed a greater value on quarterbacks who can gain yards in the open field. But there is a cost to such strategies, and if anything, we're seeing the consequences this season.

Would an expansion of the already-deep pocket protection rules have prevented Cutler's injury? Doubtful. What about Locker's hip injury? Perhaps. But the league doesn't seem to have many options -- at least, within the spirit of the game -- when quarterbacks voluntarily submit themselves to the open field. At that point, they must be considered equals to running backs or wide receivers, and tight ends -- or we're no longer talking about football.

If anything, some quarterbacks have been emboldened in the open field by officials' sensitivity to quarterback injuries. This season, in fact, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III admitted he was delaying the decision to run out of bounds in hopes of coaxing defenders to hit him illegally.

We're always loathe to blame the victim, and there's no doubt that quarterbacks have been beat up this season in a way we haven't seen in some time. (Nine are on injured reserve, the second-most in 15 years through Week 10, according to STATS.) But quarterbacks already have the option of sliding before contact, and I don't think there is a fair way to protect them further in the open field. In this case, at least, you reap what you sow.

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