- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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What if I told you there was a thriving multibillion-dollar industry with a business model that hinged on taking its most valuable assets and routinely putting them in the most dangerous and vulnerable position? What if I told you those assets are so indispensable that their replacements devalue the product by a percentage so great -- 50? 60? -- that it often doesn't even appear to be the same product without them? You'd probably tell me this industry isn't going to be thriving for long.
And yet that is precisely how you'd have to describe NFL teams and their quarterbacks. There's no other position in sports that puts a human being -- especially one who is so vital to the process -- in such a vulnerable position.
Sometimes it's tough to see this clearly. When you've grown up watching or playing the sport, you don't question it. A quarterback takes the snap, backpedals while looking downfield and hopes to God someone gets open before the pass-rushers arrive. But think about it: The one guy who is most integral to the success of the team stands defenseless while huge, fast men attempt to annihilate him. It's madness, really, especially when you include the enormous, immediate benefit that comes to the team that hurts him.
What are the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger? What are the Bears without Jay Cutler? We saw the answers to both of those questions in the span of 24 hours beginning Sunday night, and it was so bad it was hard to watch. Two hits the previous week -- Roethlisberger landing hard on his shoulder, Cutler being cheap-shotted in the head -- and those two teams went from Ferraris to Ford Fiestas.
Cutler is no Joe Montana, but the change the Bears underwent when they went from Cutler to Jason Campbell was ridiculous. From a business standpoint, it was like Domino's deciding to stop using cheese. The 49ers should have been prosecuted for the way they treated Campbell. He and his offensive line played as if their sole objective was to get him hurt. I kept waiting for a white flag to come flying in from the Bears' sideline. And poor Byron Leftwich … the only thing worse for the Steelers than his performance is Charlie Batch's start this weekend.
So to recap, we've got a system that places inordinate emphasis on the one guy who is most susceptible to injury, and few teams -- good teams, anyway -- have a replacement who can play at anywhere near the same level. (The 49ers are an obvious exception, although that may change if Alex Smith has to replace Colin Kaepernick anytime soon.) Everyone in the game just shrugs and continues to go forward running the same type of offense with the same potential for disaster.
What's the answer? Maybe there isn't one, and maybe there doesn't need to be one. Everyone is going to continue to watch and bet on the games. Obviously, the NFL is in the early stages of a health-and-wellness crisis, one that figures to dominate the league for the foreseeable future, but the fate of this year's crop of quarterbacks has not yet shown itself to be central to that issue.
But shouldn't someone be thinking of something? Seriously, there's a guy back there standing still, while these amazing athletes run full-speed at his static body. They're trying to hurt him, and his job is to keep his eyes downfield, away from the human vehicles that are accelerating toward him. This is nothing new, of course, but there's at least a small part of it that seems unsustainable.
Individuals have managed. Peyton Manning has alleviated the pressure with fast-as-thought decisions and a quick release. Michael Vick used to be able to offset the rush with his feet, but now that his feet have slowed along with his decision-making, he's no longer a viable NFL quarterback. In a general sense, the shotgun formation is intended to give the quarterback a head start on looking downfield before the rush arrives.
But it seems the next big innovation in football will come when someone figures out a way to keep the quarterback healthier than the guys who are -- from a business standpoint -- far less valuable. Short of instituting a three-Mississippi pass rush, what's the answer? I watch Chip Kelly's Oregon offense and see a system -- whether by design or coincidence -- using deception and pace to keep the pass rush off the quarterback. To this point, the speed option has not proved to be viable in the NFL, partly because committing to it would be a lengthy, potentially ugly process. (It seems nearly impossible to sign, draft and coach a team on the fly and implement it with anything close to immediate success.) And to be fair, the quarterback takes a lot of hits in that offense, but he almost always has the benefit of moving forward and focusing on immediate danger when he does. If Marcus Mariota finds himself standing still in the backfield long enough to be drilled by a defensive end, chances are he's messed something up somewhere along the line.
There's a whole cottage industry built up around the idea that the NFL is too complicated for the average being to understand. The schemes, the formations, the possibilities -- please, just go lay on the fainting couch until everything feels normal again. It only appears the Bears' offensive scheme for Monday night was written in crayon and found balled-up in the trash in the back of a second-grade classroom in Wilmette after school on Thursday. You'll just have to live your life content with the knowledge that you'll never understand the intricacies that come with devising a plan that can throw for minus-1 yards in a half.
Still, isn't there anyone out there -- just one of these myriad geniuses -- devising a way to limit the devastation wrought upon quarterbacks?
Naturally, there are those who believe the game has gone too far in the opposite direction. Vinny Testaverde, speaking on "Mike and Mike" on Tuesday, said the NFL has gone too far in its attempts to protect the quarterback. "Football players play football," he said, no doubt sounding like your grandpa pontificating on the relative merits of hunting squirrels for sustenance versus sitting around playing video games, "and you never know when you're going to get hurt."
Look, everybody knows it can be frustrating. The Ed Reed situation proves that. You don't know when you can or can't hit a guy or how, and the referees are trying to figure it out as it happens, which means they're doing at least a little bit of guessing. And there's a disturbingly large portion of the football-loving population that believes we'll all be speaking French and drinking tea with an extended pinkie if Wes Welker is allowed to flit across the middle of the field like a ballerina with no fear of getting his head separated from his body. (Interesting, however, how most of those people are in no danger of being on the receiving ends of those hits.)
"When I came in the league, you could hit a quarterback high, you could hit him low, you could hit him late," Testaverde said. "Now you can't do any of that."
And yet Cutler is injured and Smith is injured and Roethlisberger is injured and Michael Vick still can't drive a car or go near a window. It kind of seems like somebody is still being allowed to hit high or low or, at the very least, somewhere in the middle. Either that, or the whole paradigm is due for an overhaul.
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