SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
October 31, 1988
Why have so many NFL quarterbacks been injured this season? Dr. Z offers one theory—and ideas on how to reverse the trend
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October 31, 1988

What A Downer

Why have so many NFL quarterbacks been injured this season? Dr. Z offers one theory—and ideas on how to reverse the trend

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•No defensive player has put more than one quarterback out of commission, which means there don't seem to be any gunslingers around the league trying to make their reputations by totaling quarterbacks.

•Of the three leading sackers after Week 7, none has knocked a quarterback out.

•Though some coaches contend that the numbers of both sacks and passes have increased in the NFL this season, the average number of sacks in a game per team through Week 7 was 2.59, the lowest since 1981. and the average number of passing plays was 34.6, the fewest since '83. In other words, it's not sacks that are doing the damage; it's the hits while throwing.

I have a theory on why so many quarterbacks are going down, which I call the Immune Strain Theory. When a pesticide comes on the market, it's usually effective until the insect the pesticide was designed for develops resistance to it. In effect, what evolves is an immune strain. The NFL introduced a pesticide of sorts in the late 1970s because defensive linemen had become uncontrollable. The league outlawed the head slap and allowed offensive linemen freer use of their hands. In addition, defensive backs could no longer bump a receiver all the way down the field. That gave quarterbacks easier and quicker reads and more of an opportunity to release the ball before pass-rushing defensive ends and tackles could get to them.

So how did defensive coordinators respond to the change? They created a new position, the tweener. Tweeners come in two sizes: some are linebackers who are as big as defensive ends, such as the New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor, the San Francisco 49ers' Charles Haley or the New England Patriots' Andre Tippett, and some are 215-to 230-pound strong safety-linebackers, such as the 49ers' Jeff Fuller, the Cincinnati Bengals' David Fulcher and the Lions' Bennie Blades. In both cases, they represent a new strain of pass rushers, too quick for the people assigned to block them.

"Quarterbacks haven't changed that much in size recently," says Browns general manager Ernie Accorsi, "and they're taking a pounding from guys built like concrete and throwing their bodies around like never before."

"There were big, strong guys in the old days," adds Packer trainer Domenic Gentile, "but you didn't have people who come in like a missile."

The smaller "missiles" are being dispatched in waves from such pressure formations as Philadelphia Eagle coach Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, which puts eight men in rush position. Spread offenses with as many as four wideouts and only one blocking back are unable to fend off all the pass rushers. But instead of cutting back and going to maximum protection, offensive coaches have been giving their quarterbacks a series of "hot reads," receivers to dump off the ball to in a hurry when the rush gets heavy. So what happens? The quarterback hits the hot man, and the rush hits the quarterback. The Browns are one team that will use four wideouts on first downs; they also have lost three quarterbacks this season.

Some of the offensive schemes are poorly devised, and others don't take the strengths of a particular defensive player into account. Use a back, any back, to block a Taylor, and you're asking for trouble. In the old days, the traditional matchup was between a big back, such as Marion Motley of the Browns in the 1940s and '50s or Matt Snell of the New York Jets in the '60s, and a big blitzer. But on Oct. 16 whom did the Lions use to take on Taylor? Carl Painter, who's all of 5'9" and 185 pounds. Goodbye and good luck. The next sight was of quarterback Rusty Hilger's feet in the air.

Ryan, the architect of the pressure defenses of the 1980s, says it isn't his multiple-rush concepts that are causing the rash of injuries to quarterbacks. "It's the offensive coordinators who want to draw a lot of pass patterns and send everybody out," he says. "They ought to keep people in the way [the old Colts' and Jets' coach] Weeb Ewbank used to. He started with protection, put one guy out, then got more. But the main thing for him was protecting the quarterbacks. Now the offensive coaches are all getting colorful. They're putting people in motion, running everybody out in the pattern and trying to be geniuses. And they're not protecting their quarterbacks."

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