Ashley Fox | ESPN.com
Protect the quarterback.
That is the highest priority of the NFL’s competition committee. The quarterback is the franchise. He is each team’s most valuable commodity. He is the show.
So when the competition committee meets each offseason to consider rules proposals and potential changes, it revisits hits on the quarterbacks that occurred the previous season. The goal is to make sure the committee has the right rules in place to most effectively protect the quarterbacks from suffering serious, potentially season-ending injuries.
“Every rule to protect the quarterback is voted on unanimously,” said an NFL source. “Everybody says, ‘How can we protect him?’ The money they’re paid, their importance to their franchise, there’s absolutely no question you must err on the side of caution.”
That isn’t going to change no matter how much defensive players complain, nor should it. The quarterback is too valuable, to his team and to the league.
Defensive players past and present have been incensed over the personal foul penalty San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks received for his sack of Drew Brees late in the 49ers’ loss at New Orleans on Sunday. With the Saints driving trailing 20-17, Brooks came from Brees’ blind side and pulled Brees to the ground.
While Brooks made initial contact with Brees’ left shoulder and chest, as he pulled Brees down, his right arm wrapped around Brees’ neck and head. Brooks was flagged for unnecessary roughness and cited for contacting Brees’ neck, which is prohibited. The penalty negated the sack and a fumble. The Saints retained possession and tied the game on a Garrett Hartley field goal that ended that drive. Hartley later kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired.
Afterward, Brees characterized the hit as a clothesline tackle and said his mouth filled with blood as a result. He did not, however, think Brooks’ hit was malicious or intentional.
Even so, defensive players have renewed their complaints about the league being too protective of quarterbacks and offensive players in general. They hate all of the rules that protect the quarterback. They hate the rules protecting defenseless players. They hate that receivers are free to run untouched 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.
And many defensive players think the league is purposely trying to skew the rules toward the offense — and thus make the defenders’ jobs harder, if not virtually impossible — because high-scoring offense sells. Defense does not.
As a show of solidarity with their defensive brethren, ESPN analysts Ray Lewis and Tedy Bruschi, both former linebackers, even volunteered to pay a portion of the $15,750 fine that Brooks reportedly will receive.
Ultimately, it will all be for naught, nothing more than noise the committee will ignore. The rules are the rules, and they aren’t going to change.
As of now, it is unlikely the competition committee will make more rules changes in the spring in regards to protecting the quarterback. While there have been injuries to high-profile players — including Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Chicago’s Jay Cutler and St. Louis’ Sam Bradford — the committee considers all the factors. What is the injury? What are the referees calling? What are they not calling? What techniques are being used?
For example, the competition committee isn’t going to consider protecting the quarterback when he tucks the ball and runs, as Rodgers did before breaking his collarbone.
“You can’t protect the quarterback outside of the pocket when he’s a runner, otherwise we’ll turn into the NCAA and we’ll have all option quarterbacks,” the league source said. “You can’t have that. Once he has the ball in his hands, he’s fair game. You can’t protect that guy, either. In the pocket, everybody on the committee wants him protected.”
That’s where Brees was. In the pocket, standing upright. In that scenario, it is much easier for the defensive player to control how he sacks the quarterback. It is tougher for defenders who try to tackle, say, a receiver after he catches the ball and ducks his head.
And for all of the carping by defensive players about how protected the quarterback is — you can’t hit his knees, you can’t hit him after he releases the ball, you can’t hit his head — the competition committee did cut defenders a break a few years ago. Despite initial objection from a couple of members, the committee liberalized the roughing the passer rule to allow “incidental or inadvertent contact by a player who is easing up or being blocked into the passer.”
The competition committee is the caretaker of the game, and the NFL has no more valuable asset than the stars under center. They draw people to the stadiums. They draw viewers. They get ratings.
So the quarterbacks will always be as protected as possible. There is autonomy on the committee about that because ultimately, whom would you rather see play: Brees or his backup, Luke McCown?
The answer to that is easy.
- ESPN.com NFL columnist
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Has also worked at Sports Illustrated, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Louisville Courier-Journal