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Broncos' hits on Cam Newton show that NFL must improve player safety
0:47 | NFL
Broncos' hits on Cam Newton show that NFL must improve player safety
Thursday September 15th, 2016

After the beating Cam Newton took last Thursday at the hands of the Broncos, renewed calls for the NFL to protect its quarterbacks are echoing throughout the league. The Ringer’s Kevin Clark did an excellent job this week presenting the challenge the league faces and why it should take immediate action.

But Roger Goodell should proceed cautiously, or his efforts could backfire.

Officiating chief Dean Blandino explained on NFL Total Access that the hits on Newton were legal because he was in a “running posture”—basically, he had become a running back and didn’t have the protection typically given to QBs in the pocket. Let’s say the NFL extends that pocket protection for quarterbacks to the rest of the field. Naturally, quarterbacks would take full advantage and run to open space every chance they got. They would feel safer, and defenses would draw more costly penalties that help offenses march down the field the way pass interference flags do now. In theory, quarterback runs would increase significantly, and the value of QBs who can run would rise with them.

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If the league’s sole incentive is to protect the most important position on the field, encouraging them to run more could have disastrous effects for teams who rely so much on their quarterbacks. Some QBs are already fearless. Last week, Newton ran the ball 11 times—not even a remarkable number for him—against Denver, while running back Jonathan Stewart had only 15 carries. That balance is way out of whack. Panthers supporters correctly claim officials don’t call enough penalties on Newton because he’s so big. But the coaching staff seems to encourage him to run for that very reason.

Chip Kelly, whose 49ers face Carolina this week, noted the Panthers’ use of Newton as a runner this week.

“There was a little bit more quarterback run than I thought we would see [against Denver],” Kelly said. “But obviously when you have someone like Cam, you want to run him. It seems like that was part of their game plan: the designed quarterback runs, the quarterback counters, the powers.”

Everyone thinks Newton is indestructible. Newton is 27 and has avoided major injury so far, but ultimately bad things are going to happen when the Panthers expose him to so many hits. Do you really need to run the read-option when you have the quarterback with arguably the best arm in the league?

Now imagine that Newton and other big, fast quarterbacks—like Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota and Carson Wentz—could run without fear. Coaching staffs would design more QB runs, the read-option would continue to spread and quarterbacks would hold on to the ball as long as they can.

Ultimately, teams and players alike put winning ahead of safety, and they’d view new rules from a strategic standpoint. As Newton rather diplomatically tried to fend off questions about the hits during the Denver game earlier this week, he offered what seemed like a truthful statement:

“I’m worried about winning. That’s it. Winning. Winning football games. That’s why I’m here. I’m not here to worry about retirement plans. I’m not here to worry about pensions. I’m not here to worry about workers comp. I’m here to win football games. Simple and plain. This is a contact sport. This is a physical sport. I play the game for the right reasons so whatever coach asks me to do, I’m gonna do it, to win football games.”

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Teams would view new rules as an opportunity, just like Bill Belichick has done with this season’s new touchback rule. The NFL hoped placing the 25-yard line would discourage the return team from bringing it out of the end zone and reduce injuries on one of football’s most dangerous plays. But the Patriots coach admitted he had kicker Steven Gostkowski try to keep the ball in play during New England’s Week 1 win to pin the Cardinals deep on a short return. “We had an opportunity to kick it out of the end zone on the last kickoff, but with a good field goal kicker, a good offense, good quarterback, we try to put them on as long a field as we could,” Belichick said. “That was a great situational play, and we needed it at that time.” Other teams tried directional kickoffs in the preseason, and this could easily become a trend that results in more returns.

Expanding the rules protecting quarterbacks could easily lead to unintended consequences. Maybe they would take less helmet-to-helmet hits, but bad things tend to happen if they’re in the open field. They’d certainly take more body shots and risk more non-contact injuries. And if they truly start acting like running backs, helmet-to-helmet contact is inevitable.

I’m not blaming Cam. He will do anything he can to win. He essentially said he doesn’t care about his long-term health—that’s where the league is supposed to step in and help. But if the NFL is going to institute rules designed to protect its marquee players, the league better make sure that will be the end result.

The argument to give quarterbacks special protection all over the field is a cousin of the movement to remove helmets or facemasks. Helmets make defenders feel indestructible, making them more likely to launch themselves head-first at ballcarriers and put them in more danger long-term. Empowering quarterbacks to use the entire field could actually end up causing more problems.

I’m all for protecting quarterbacks. Anyone who likes football is. But just make sure any new rules actually do that.

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