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PROTECT THE PASSER

Sept. 05, 2011
Sept. 05, 2011

Table of Contents
Sept. 5, 2011

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
NFL PREVIEW
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
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PROTECT THE PASSER

So, kids, you want to grow up to be an NFL quarterback? A word of advice: Don't. Choose another dream job. Ben & Jerry's taste-tester. SI Swimsuit photographer. Oprah's best friend. But pro quarterback? The job isn't what it used to be. Unless you're one of a fortunate few, the position will bring you more aggravation than adulation. Being an NFL quarterback doesn't seem like much fun anymore.

This is an article from the Sept. 5, 2011 issue

Just look at the lengthening list of job requirements. It's no longer sufficient to be strong-armed enough to dent marble with a marshmallow, accurate enough to put a sniper to shame and agile enough to sidestep ill-tempered masses of muscle. Now you have to be part MacBook Pro, to process the hundreds of pages of plays, formations and protection schemes in the typical NFL team playbook, and part Columbo, to sleuth the increasingly sophisticated ways that defenses disguise their intentions (page 46). On top of all that, you have to be man enough to take it when frustrated pass rushers suggest you're so protected by the rules that you might be more comfortable in something frilly from Ann Taylor (no relation).

If you can check every box on that list, congratulations, you are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers—in which case your most difficult life choice is, supermodel or starlet? If not, prepare to be hammered from every side. Quarterbacks all over the league are getting battered these days, and not just by the pass rush. It's not that quarterback play is any worse than in other eras, it's that the advancements in communications technology make it easier for criticism to gain momentum and grow more biting in the process. It's nothing new for a quarterback to be booed by his team's fans, for instance, but in an intrasquad scrimmage? That's what happened to Dolphins QB Chad Henne early in the preseason. "I'm human," Henne told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Deep down inside, it does hurt."

Or take Denver QB Tim Tebow, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida who, judging from some of the snarky comments about him, has about as much chance to succeed in the NFL as Snooki from Jersey Shore. ESPN analyst Merril Hoge crushed Tebow on Twitter recently, calling it "embarrassing" to think the Broncos could win with him as the starter. "[Rah-rah] speeches do not work!" Hoge tweeted. "You must possess a skill set to play!" (And no, I don't know why he was shouting!) Even if Tebow wasn't worth a first-round pick, as a second-year player, can he really be that hopeless? Some media reports make it sound as though Tebow is behind every other quarterback in camp, as well as a couple of guys in the ticket department.

Some quarterbacks can't win even if they win. Jets QB Mark Sanchez has had four road playoff victories and reached the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, and there are still plenty of voices that call him a product of Gotham hype. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is remembered less for leading Chicago to the NFC title game last season than for being accused of being soft when he left that game in the third quarter with a left-knee injury that didn't appear to be serious but, in fact, was later diagnosed as an MCL tear.

But QBs are most often bashed for being the fair-haired favorites of the refs and rules-makers, who have combined to protect them as they stand in the pocket. Here's a suggestion for all the linemen and linebackers and blitzing safeties who complain that the game is turning into flag football because they're forced to be careful about how they hit the quarterback: After practice sometime, stand on the field while other linemen and linebackers and blitzing safeties take running starts and slam into you about a dozen times while you look downfield, unable to brace yourself for the blows.

It's time to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we've been guilty of quarterback abuse. It is, after all, harder than ever to play the position consistently well. The Panthers gave rookie QB Cam Newton a simplified version of their offense to study during the lockout, then made his head spin with the full playbook when training camp began. "That was Dr. Seuss compared to doggone Shakespeare," Newton told CBSSports.com.

Even after you download the playbook, you must also be able to spot and adjust to ever-more complex defenses in seconds. "There are so many more responsibilities than even 10 years ago," says ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who quarterbacked five teams in his 13-year career. "The quarterback has to come to the line and be prepared to change pass protections, pass routes, run blocking, based on what he sees in those few seconds before the snap. It used to be that a quarterback could be successful as long as he had a big arm and toughness. You can't just be a butcher anymore. You have to be a surgeon."

Maybe the problem is that the game is evolving faster than quarterbacks' ability to keep up. The responsibilities are too wide-ranging, the necessary package of physical, emotional and mental qualities too vast. We may reach a point at which there won't be anyone who can master the position. Dilfer won't go that far. "I think there will still be really good ones," he says, "but the bad ones will be worse."

The vitriol will no doubt be worse as well, and who needs that? Think about those other career possibilities, you would-be QBs. That Chunky Monkey's not going to taste itself.

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"THERE ARE SO MANY MORE RESPONSIBILITIES THAN EVEN 10 YEARS AGO," SAYS FORMER QB TRENT DILFER. "[THE QUARTERBACK] CAN'T BE A BUTCHER ANYMORE. YOU HAVE TO BE A SURGEON."
PHOTOJOHN BURGESS