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Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson thinks the changes such as the one-step rule, which was enacted this season and allows rushers to take only one step toward the quarterback after he starts passing, have given the signal callers a false sense of security. "When I played, you knew what the stakes were," he says. "Now a quarterback thinks he's protected when he's not. These changes might be working the wrong way."
"A lot of quarterbacks are standing there like statues—they're not braced for any kind of impact," says Mike Hickey, the Jets' player personnel director. "Some of them think they're invulnerable. Then when they go down, they're surprised. They're trying to pick out second and third receivers when the first one is covered. Hell, throw the ball away and duck—and reload for the next play. Where does it say that a guy has to complete 75 percent of his passes? In the old days guys were getting creamed, but they didn't expect to be protected all the time either. They were ready for it."
Los Angeles Raider quarterback Steve Beuerlein concurs. "We aren't taught to run or to protect ourselves, and we don't wear as much padding." he says. "We're not taught how to take on those big guys."
Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham feels that the new interpretation of pass interference, which permits defensive backs to get away with more contact downfield, causes passers to wait longer. The Phoenix Cardinals' Neil Lomax believes that the rules designed to protect quarterbacks are not being enforced uniformly by all officials. And many quarterbacks contend that the NFL's crackdown on head shots has caused rushers to come in low and make their hits at knee level, an especially vulnerable area. "When we played the Jets, linebacker Alex Gordon went deliberately for my knee," Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason says. "I hope he didn't mean to knock me out of the game, but it looked like that on film."
"You knock on wood and pray that you're not going to be next," says the Buffalo Bills' Jim Kelly. "I don't know why so many guys are getting hurt. It's just something that happens. They can't change the game any more to protect quarterbacks. You accept the fact that you're going to be exposed to a lot of people taking blind shots at you. You just hope you can get up the next time."
This isn't the first time there has been a deluge of injuries among quarterbacks in the NFL. In 1976. 20 of them were injured in the first eight games. On Nov. 13, 1977, also known as Black Sunday, eight quarterbacks were felled. And two years ago seven starting quarterbacks went down in Week 7. By midseason 13 had missed one or more games, and the 49ers and San Diego Chargers were down to third-stringers.
But despite their previous experience the NFL owners are still at a loss as to how to solve the problem. "We [the Competition Committee] sat in a dark room and studied films of every sack, every injury," says the Bengals' Paul Brown. "We have refined it as much as we can to protect quarterbacks in a very reasonable way. I know of nothing more we can do."
"We're to the point that if you do anything more, you'll change the game," adds Tex Shramm. president of the Dallas Cowboys. "The only thing now is to put red shirts on them and make the game into touch football."
Don't laugh. Agent Leigh Steinberg, who has 13 quarterbacks as clients, has suggested adopting flag football rules for signal callers. One touch and that's it. His proposal hasn't gone over too well with anybody in the game, however. "That's simply awful—ridiculous," says Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard of Steinberg's suggestion. "Changes in the game have to come through coaching, not legislation."
Warren Moon, who cut a $6 million five-year deal with Houston in 1984 with Steinberg as his agent, says, "I know Leigh is concerned about the players he represents, but the rules already are taking away a lot of the quarterbacks' athletic abilities."