Keith Strudler: Get Your Hands Off My Quarterback
You can make a pretty compelling argument that football quarterback is the most challenging position in any team sport. I’m sure soccer goalies and starting pitchers may disagree, but it’s hard to imagine any role that requires a greater mix of analysis, athleticism, grooming and composure than QB. The quarterback is central to pretty much every offensive play in football, which can fall apart through either a bad decision or bad execution. And it’s pretty rare to have someone who excels at both. There’s not a lot of Tom Bradys or Russell Wilsons out there. Which is why they’re such critical commodities in the NFL exchange, as evidenced by where they get drafted and how much they get paid.
And, it’s clear, by how they’re treated by the evolving NFL rulebook. In a sport that often seems like a reenactment from the Roman Coliseum, quarterbacks are treated with something of a light touch, at least by football standards. They have their own penalty dedicated to their protection, called roughing the passer. The only other players with a similar policy is kickers, and most people don’t consider them real football players anyway. This season in particular, the NFL seems to have taken protecting quarterbacks to a new level. That’s because during the offseason, the league changed the rule to essentially penalize defenders for landing on quarterbacks with their full body weight. That’s on top of the existing rules about late hits and hits to the head and all the other stuff that hopefully keeps quarterbacks on the field instead of a hospital gurney.
Now to be fair, the full weight of an NFL athlete is considerable. And when coming at a high rate of acceleration, that does create a fair amount of force. That’s just physics. What’s also physics is that athletes well trained in pursuing and tacking a quarterback have a hard time simultaneously shifting their body weight to only kind of land on top of them. It’s kind of like playing with a puppy. You have to be careful not fall on top of them even when they’re basically jumping all over you and licking your face. So maybe playing football is a little like playing with a puppy, which is not exactly the image the NFL has historically tried to project.
Neither fans nor commentators nor most defensive players seem to enjoy these new criterion – especially the ones who have been penalized for a play that used to be completely legal. The outcome of a few games have probably been changed because of the new rule, since teams were able to extend drives through penalty yardage to go for winning scores. A few athletes are already serial offenders, including Green Bay’s Clay Matthews, who’s been flagged each of the first three games. Fans are making parody videos on social media, using bed pillows to lay down captured QB’s. And a lot of people have used language like “soft” and “politically correct” in reference to the new world order. For a lot of NFL fans, the league had a clear ethos – really tough guys hit each other really hard to dominate one another and advance a pigskin downfield. Everyone involved knows the risks, and fans have historically bought into this form of dramatic play.
Yet for a long list of reasons, that construct is increasingly untenable. For starters, quarterbacks are worth much more on their feet than on the ground. Everyone seems to understand the high stakes concussion world of modern football – to which quarterbacks would be highly vulnerable without protection. And kids are increasingly sitting on the sidelines instead of playing, or perhaps moving the sideline of the soccer pitch, where only slide tackles are legal. For those and other reasons, the world of gun-slinging QB’s who expect broken ribs every game is probably over. So even if this rule may not be working, something like it is going to have to. And by the way, I’m not a big fan of the new rule, even if I don’t have a better solution.
I suppose this should all be considered in context. We’re at something of a critical junction in the US where we are rightfully considering the ways in which men act. Obviously, that focus has come largely around how boys and men treat women. Which has probably put a lot of men, and perhaps even some women, in a defensive posture around the historic acceptance of brutish and toxic masculinity. So when we now demand that football players, the most masculine of us all, that they need to tone down socially encouraged violent behaviors, that’s not simply an assault on football. To some, that’s an assault on manhood, which, unfortunately, is often a bridge too far. That, perhaps more than the game itself, is the genesis of outrage.
All that, from just trying to protect a quarterback. They are, as you likely know, pretty important.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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