Packers.com Editor Vic Ketchman says yes.
NFL rules protect passers from helmet-to-helmet hits. NFL rules do not protect runners from helmet-to-helmet hits. When does a passer become a runner?
That is a major question the NFL's competition committee should revisit and redefine in the offseason because the line between passer and runner has been blurred significantly this season by the emergence of big, strong, spread-option type quarterbacks such as Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, players that are either equal parts runner and passer or, in Tebow's case, two parts runner and one part passer.
Yes, Aaron Rodgers often becomes a runner. So do a lot of star-quality quarterbacks. In a game that increasingly rewards mobility, you want your quarterback to have the skill to take flight from a collapsing pass-pocket.
Quarterbacks such as Rodgers, however, take flight out of necessity, not intent. Quarterbacks such as Newton and Tebow, however, call their own numbers in the huddle. They run by design and for the purpose of gaining yards, not avoiding trouble.
Last Thursday, Browns quarterback Colt McCoy took flight from a collapsing pocket. He tucked the ball under his arm and ran forward. At a point near the line of scrimmage, McCoy saw linebacker James Harrison closing on him and McCoy decided it would be a better idea to throw the ball, which he did wildly, frantically and incomplete for a nearby receiver at the sideline. Shortly after McCoy released the pass, he was met helmet to helmet by Harrison.
A penalty flag flew and Harrison was given a one-game suspension today. His suspension was mostly the result of being a repeat offender but, clearly, the league was saying McCoy was a passer when hit by Harrison.
Wait a minute. So McCoy went from passer to runner to passer, the last conversion having occurred in the split second it took Harrison to close the final step of distance between himself and McCoy. Had McCoy kept the ball tucked under his arm and continued his posture as a runner, we are to believe there would've been no penalty, fine or suspension: out of the pocket, ball under the arm, running forward. All of that is consistent with the definition of a runner.
What if Newton or Tebow had been McCoy? Newton is 6-5, 248. Tebow is 6-2, 236. These are not men you want to have drop the pads on you. These are not athletes you want to meet tentatively. Harrison is 6-0, 242. Exactly who needs to be protected from whom?
College football is full of an army of spread-option quarterbacks. If Newton and Tebow are ushering in an era of running quarterbacks, then the league needs to revisit and redefine its rules as to how and when it protects its quarterbacks, because spread-option quarterbacks are every bit the runners that running backs are, and running backs are afforded none of the protections quarterbacks are.
Here's my recommendation:
While in the pocket or while in a feet-first slide, the current protections for quarterbacks should remain in force. I'll even go so far as to advocate a rule to allow spiking to avoid a sack; that's how safety-conscious I've become.
Where I draw the line is at the edge of the tackle box, which defines the pocket. Once the quarterback leaves the pocket and is not in a feet-first slide, he should be treated as a runner. At that point, he has elected to play real football and the men that play that game shouldn't be hamstrung in their efforts to do so.
By making that clear distinction, the line between runner and passer takes on a very sharp focus. Wanna be a passer? Stay in the pocket. Runners advance at your own risk.
Packers.com Staff Writer Mike Spofford says no.
Hold on just a minute. I don't think changing the rules because we're suddenly starting to see a "different" type of quarterback is prudent. Not at all.
For one, there's no telling whether these running quarterbacks are becoming the new league trend, or if they're just a passing (pun intended) fad. Let's not go changing all the rules based on three-quarters of one season of play from less than a handful of "new" QBs.
More important, altering the protections the true pocket passers have – guys like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers – when they do out of necessity leave the pocket won't be good for business for the NFL.
Let's be real. The quarterbacks who are pushing 5,000 passing yards per season are the guys who make the NFL as popular as it is. They've taken the passing attacks that Dan Marino, Warren Moon and John Elway employed and made the game more explosive and even more exciting to watch.
Why should the league remove any protections that could put these guys at greater risk of injury for the sake of a few others who are trying to turn back the clock?
The league protects quarterbacks because they're franchise players. They play the most difficult position there is to play in this game, and guys who are truly good at it are getting harder and harder to find.
That's why these running quarterbacks are starting to come into vogue, in all honesty. Because there are only so many highly skilled pocket passers who can play this game the way the fans love to see it played. They're in short supply.
Think that's an overstatement? Look what's happened to the teams just this season that have lost quarterbacks to injuries. The Chiefs' and Bears' seasons are sinking fast, the Raiders mortgaged a piece of their future in a trade, and need I mention the Colts? Sure, the Texans are still winning but, with all due respect, does anybody really think T.J. Yates is going to outduel Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco in the playoffs?
Injuries can happen for any number of reasons in the NFL, and by protecting quarterbacks the league is trying to reduce the chances of the most important and popular players on the field getting hurt. It just makes good business sense.
On the flip side, if these running quarterbacks become true franchise players for the long haul, which it looks like some of them might, why would the league want to protect them any less? If this is a viable trend, those players will eventually become as valuable to the game as the pocket passers, and they may be just as rare. We don't know that, yet. Either way, the business of the game would require they receive the same protections, I would think.
Look, I'm not saying quarterbacks should get more protection than they already have. They get to slide, they get to throw the ball away when they're outside the pocket, and hits to the head or knees are illegal.
If you're a quarterback, that's what you get, no matter how you play the position. The league's popularity demands that those rules continue to apply.
What do you think?