When is a Quarterback Responsible for His Own Safety?

I get that defensive players have some responsibility for making sure they don’t leave a quarterback with a busted knee or brain injury, but does the quarterback have any responsibility for his own health? This question has been nagging at me for the past week after we saw two of the worst roughing the passer calls last week, one of which may have changed the outcome of the game.

The first was Falcons DT Grady Jarrett taking down Tom Brady. This one was a classic example of a fast-moving play looking worse than it actually was. In real time, it maybe kinda sorta looked like Jarrett “threw” Brady to the ground, and despite my objection to that part of the rule, it would technically be roughing. But in slow motion, it was made clear that Jarrett actually took extra care to make sure he brought Brady down as safely as possible by rolling him over, rather than slamming him down. The replay showed this so clearly that not only did Jarrett get no fine from the NFL, but Brady actually got a fine for kicking Jarrett from the ground.

But just when it seems like it can’t get worse, on Sunday night we got Chris Jones making one of the most athletic plays a defensive lineman could possibly make, and being punished for it. While Jones was bringing David Carr to the ground, he managed to take the ball away from Carr before they both landed. We’re talking about a split second where Jones had the awareness and ability to not just get the sack, but the strip sack and recovery. All before they even hit the ground. For his efforts, he was called by Carl Cheffers for roughing the passer because his off-hand, the one that didn’t have a football in it, came down with his body weight on Carr. Luckily for the NFL, the Chiefs still won and the play didn’t ultimately change the outcome.

Instead of admitting fault for this call after the game, the NFL doubled down on the call by saying Carr was in a “passing posture” and therefore “defenseless.” When asked if the ball being removed had any bearing on the call, he gave us this gem:

No, because he still gets passing protection until he can defend himself. So, with him being in a passing posture and actually attempting to make a pass, he’s going to get full protection until the time when he actually can protect himself.

Carl Cheffers

The phrase “until he can defend himself” stuck with me all week. There are a few levels of ridiculousness to it, the obvious one being that Chris Jones is supposed to gauge whether the QB can defend himself at the same time he’s tacking the guy and taking the ball away from him. But my mind went another place with it… What if the QB doesn’t try to defend himself?

It seems like a perfectly reasonable question. In a league that values toughness and romanticizes little guys standing up to bigger guys, there aren’t many instances where a QB is taught to give up on a play. It’s actually quite common for coaches to have to teach young QBs when to slide if they run with it, because their entire lives, they were taught to give everything until the whistle.

I pondered this question all week until this morning when I listened to Eli Manning being interviewed by Dan Patrick a few days ago. In a lighthearted moment, Dan asks Eli if the new rules would’ve led to the refs saying Eli was “in the grass” on the David Tyree Helmet Catch. While his response was in the same good nature as the question, I think Eli unknowingly illuminated my concern:

I don’t think they’re gonna call in the grass right there at that moment. I think they would know I’d be willing to take a hit for a few, an extra second to get out of there.

Eli Manning on Helmet Catch play in Super Bowl
Eli Manning on if today’s concern for QB health would have negated David Tyree Helmet Catch

That statement is the truth for likely every quarterback. Every player, really. Football players are taught from the very beginning to play to the whistle, but now we have rules that tell defensive players to pull back just a bit right at that last split second.

The problem, as I see it, is that we don’t ask the quarterback to do the same. We don’t ask them to recognize when they’re beaten and take that split second to protect themselves.

In the open field, sure, get 10 yards and slide and live to see another day.

But in the pocket? We give them the green light to use every nanosecond to make a play, while promising them the defense will keep them safe or pay the price.

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