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Robert F. Jones
November 08, 1976
NFL quarterbacks are dropping at a record rate: 20 have been sent to the sidelines, two are out for the season
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November 08, 1976

Toting Up The Butcher's Bill

NFL quarterbacks are dropping at a record rate: 20 have been sent to the sidelines, two are out for the season

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Another factor militating against the quarterback is the growing attention that coaches, fans and media are paying to the "sack" (a dreadful word, though frequently quarterbacks do indeed fall like limp bags, full of blood and busted ribs). The rush lines of such teams as San Francisco, Chicago and Baltimore get nearly as much adulation as the offensive stars.

"Sacking a quarterback is just a real high altogether," grins Baltimore Tackle Joe Ehrmann, the 6'4", 254-pound leader of the Colts' Sack Pack. "It's like eating a big chocolate sundae." Once a head-hunter who avowed that Joe Willie Namath's noggin was his life's desire, Ehrmann claims to have mellowed. "I don't go after a particular number anymore," he says. "I still like to hit quarterbacks, mind you, but not Namath more than any other."

Defensive End Fred Cook, Ehrmann's sidekick, says that his own ferocity increases with every quarterback hit. "When I get a sack," he says, "it really fires me up to get another. I guess I get myself into a sadistic state of mind. I'm not out to kill a quarterback or anything like that, but I sure want to put him down." Ehrmann, Cook & Co. did just that to their onetime favorite whipping boy, Namath, at Shea Stadium two weeks ago. In the fourth quarter, John Dutton and Cook slammed him to earth with a thud that echoed over the Jet fans' groans. With his bell rung, Namath retired for the day and sat out last week's Buffalo game, too. As Namath lay cold-cocked on the wet grass, Cook knelt over him and stared down scornfully as if to say, "Why don't you get out of here while the getting's good?"

Complicating the quarterback's problems, NFL game officials now are under orders to strictly enforce rules against holding. In the fifth week of the season, Art McNally, the Supervisor of Officials, sent a "routine" memo to all his charges calling for a closer watch on holding infractions by offensive linemen. McNally's missive was long overdue: holding was so widespread, and so widely condoned except in the most flagrant cases, that college players entering the NFL could not believe what they saw. Most coaches feel that it takes three years for an offensive lineman to learn the fine points of pass blocking—that is, holding without making it too obvious. NFL rules require a blocker to keep his hands inside his elbows. He cannot extend his arms to their full length in fending off a rusher. The most common holding violation is for the blocker to clamp a rusher's hand—or hands if he's quick enough—under his own upper arms, then use his forearms to lever the opponent any way he likes.

McNally's appeal seems to have produced quick results. Last season there were 283 holding penalties imposed through the schedule's seventh game. After seven weeks this year, officials had stepped off 402 holding penalties. Holding calls had gone up from an average of 3.1 per game to 4.1—an increase of 32%.

What then can be done to protect the quarterback? The suggestions range from the sensible through the bizarre to the facetious. Cleveland Coach Forrest Gregg, tucking his tongue deep in his cheek, says that quarterbacks should be given their own yellow hankie and be permitted to throw it anytime they feel they are being abused. San Francisco's Monte Clark seriously suggests that quarterbacks be given different-colored jerseys to identify them as "fragile," much in the way teams use red shirts in training camp to identify players who are practicing with an injury.

Clark also suggests, more sensibly, that the holding rules be liberalized to permit blockers to use the elbow hook and extended arms in defense of their quarterbacks. Along with many other club officials, Assistant General Manager Jim Schaaf of the Kansas City Chiefs argues convincingly for stiffer penalties to be imposed on rushers who hit late or pile on when a quarterback is already stopped. "I'd like to see a deliberate late hit punished by more than a 15-yard penalty," says Schaaf. "Maybe even ejection from the game. The punishment should be severe enough to stop flagrant violations."

The men who have given the most thought to quarterback protection, though, are Oakland's managing general partner Al Davis and his head coach, John Madden. Members of the NFL Competition Committee, which draws up rule changes, Davis and Madden propose that the quarterback be treated the same way that a punter is—the moment his arm begins to move forward with the pass, he should be legally unhittable. "I know it sounds extreme," says Davis, "but how can you know if it's possible in this game—which is a violent, emotional struggle—without testing it?" Davis also proposes a ban on hitting a quarterback below the waist and above the shoulder pads.

Madden has mentioned the idea of giving the referee a horn, buzzer or bell that would be sounded whenever it is clear that the quarterback has gone as far as he can go—but before he gets hit. The two have also suggested that perhaps the quarterback should be denied the right to run the ball, which would doubtless save some very valuable bones from breakage but at the same time would take a measure of offense away from certain teams. "These suggestions were put before the committee but tabled, again and again," says Davis. "Sometimes I think the NFL believes it is impregnable behind its own Maginot Line. We don't exactly win awards for forward movement."

One way to keep quarterbacks healthy, suggests John Brodie, would be to legalize the intentional grounding of passes. "I played quarterback for 14 years," he says, "but it wasn't until my ninth year that I learned the full value of throwing the ball away. I learned that if a completion wasn't possible, file it. Get rid of it intentionally. In the final six years of my career, I was never penalized once for intentional grounding, but I threw the ball away hundreds of times."

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