The National Football League playoffs are in full swing and I’m sure you’re wondering who I think will win. Sorry to disappoint but my crystal ball is out of order, as always. Except at the racetracks I don’t pick winners (and there not enough), and have no patience with commentators who do. If they knew who was going to win even a bit more than half the time they wouldn’t have to work. Nobody who could would.
But I will make one prediction: No NFL team will go all the way with its No. 1 quarterback on the sidelines. That’s about the nearest thing to a “lock” I can imagine.
A review of league action to date fully supports that view; teams whose QBs have gone down have gone home, or will soon. Indeed, even ones whose signal callers were partially impaired will watch this weekend’s games on TV, like the rest of us.
The list starts with the Indianapolis Colts, whose nonpareil helmsman, Peyton Manning, hasn’t taken a snap all season because of a neck injury that, it seems, resulted from no particular blow but from the cumulative effects of his 13 NFL campaigns. His loss transformed the Colts from one of the league’s best teams to its worst. Nuf said.
The Chicago Bears’ season turned to ashes in Game 10 when it lost Jake Cutler to a broken thumb. Yeah, the injury came not from a sack but from his attempt to be a real football player and tackle a guy who’d intercepted one of his passes, but with the pummeling he was taking behind a weak O-line it was only a matter of time before he was hurt. Cutler was bashed as a wimp when a knee injury knocked him (and his team) out of a playoff game last season, but his fortitude in the face of adversity in this one should have put that rap to rest. Maybe from now on he won’t feel obliged to prove his manhood.
The Arizona Cardinals spent big money to bring in QB Kevin Kolb, but because of concussions and a foot injury hardly got to see him play. Concussions ended the Cleveland Browns’ Colt McCoy’s season prematurely and, maybe, his career as well. The Miami Dolphins’ Chad Henne lasted four games before going out with a separated shoulder. The Houston Texans lost Matt Schaub to a foot injury in Game 8 and his backup, Matt Leinart, to a broken collarbone the next week. The Texans soldier on behind QB3, the rookie T.J. Yates, but you’ll get really good odds if you think he’ll take them past this weekend.
Quarterback injuries that weren’t season-ending spoiled other teams’ hopes. Michael Vicks’ midseason hiatus with broken ribs hurt the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff bid was sabotaged by Tony Romo’s broken hand, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was running on stilts after a late-season ankle injury ended his year in playoff defeat.
Such stories are all too typical of a sport that, against all reason, exposes its most-important (and highest paid) performers to the greatest injury risk. In the act of passing, which they do on most plays, quarterbacks usually are stationary and their attention is on their receivers downfield, not on the behemoths bearing down on them. Even getting the ball away in time doesn’t always save them from getting creamed.
It’s instructive, I think, to compare the league’s treatment of quarterbacks with that of punters. The latter are the lowest-paid players on most teams, and the most-easily replaced, but if they are molested during or immediately after they carry out their task the punishment is swift and severe. Hence, their injury rate is low.
On the other hand, it’s always open season on QBs, the players around whom every team’s offense revolves, so those guys take more blows than Evander Holyfield on a bad night. Indeed, a legal tackle after a pass has been released is so common that there's a boxing-like statistic for it—the “hit.” Further, the line between a legit “hit” and a penalizable “late” one is thin and the reward for stepping over it is high. Is it worth 15 yards to sideline a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees? Need I ask?
In recent seasons the league has moved to increase quarterback protection by instituting the “in the grasp” rule that stops a play before a QB has been wrestled to the ground and banning below-the-knees tackles by would-be sackers. That’s fine but not enough. Limiting to six the number of defensive players who can rush the passer on any play would help. So would a blanket extension of the “intentional grounding” rule. Trading a few quarterback sacks for more ambulatory QBs would be a good deal, I think.
Whenever the subject of protecting quarterbacks comes up on sportsblab radio or TV somebody coughs up the line that you might as well put those guys in skirts. Football’s a rough game any way you slice it, and it’s played by volunteers who willingly accept the risks, so let the boys be, the knuckleheads say.
But that argument weakens with every new study of the long-term effects of football-related injuries, and as a fan I’m tired of watching backups play as every season’s schedule unfolds. If the league won’t shield its players for their own sake they might consider the people who pay the bills.