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The Stanford Research Institute's computer work-up for the NFL indicated that of players on offense quarterbacks were the second most likely (behind running backs) players to suffer injury. A preliminary study of 1,002 high school and college players, to be updated this year by the National Athletic Injury/Illness Reporting System, was even more damning. Adjusted to the number of players per position, the NAIRS study indicated that quarterbacks suffered one-seventh of all "significant injuries" (those that cost game time).
As doleful figures go, those would seem a stiff enough price to pay for being sure quarterbacks are not "coddled." Not everyone believes you would "take something from the game" by providing quarterbacks more protection within the rules—protection not against the normal risks of a physical sport, but against legal loopholes and dubious ethics that have allowed a twisted rationale to spread in the game.
Oakland Coach John Madden is a non-believer. Madden rages against rules that have allowed the quarterback to become "not only our most valuable player, but our most vulnerable. We protect our kickers with good rules. You can't run into a kicker legally unless you also block the kick. But you can run into a quarterback anytime after he throws the ball, as long as the referee thinks you were in the act before the ball was thrown. That doesn't make sense to me. It doesn't make sense to protect the kickers more than the quarterbacks."
John Pont, the former Yale, Northwestern and Indiana coach, is not convinced either. Pont wonders about a "new mentality" of coaching where "you make the quarterback the target and kick the hell out of him, whether he has the ball or not."
And neither is at least one quarterback, Seattle's Zorn. "If I don't have the ball," he says, "I sure don't want to get knocked on my tail." Zorn has been in the NFL only a couple of years, so his verbal indiscretions can be excused. He is not, however, unscarred. He suffered a broken cheekbone in 1976 when he "stepped up to throw and at the same time a guy rushing in hit me in the face with his helmet."
Through the years there have been other such heretics, unwilling to concede these batterings as quid pro quo. Jack Nix, a Santa Ana, Calif. insurance man who played end for the San Francisco 49ers and refereed in the NFL for 10 years, remembers Quarterback Frankie Albert giving opposing linemen sales talks on the subject. "He'd scream at 'em, 'Don't hit me like that! It's stupid! You put me out of the game and you're cutting your own paycheck! People come to see me play!' "
Nix is one of those radical thinkers who believe the open season on quarterbacks today is the worst kind of hoax because it is self-inflicted—a cream pie that football is throwing in its own face. The hoax is complicated, however. It begins with the premise most coaches and players swallow willingly: that a quarterback is just one of 22 men on the field, protected in the same way by the same tidy rules. That is logical, but that is also nonsense.
There are, to begin with, unmistakable physical inequities. Football players have changed markedly since World War II. Everybody is bigger, for sure, but intense weight-lifting programs, in many instances augmented by chemicals, and various strength machines have bulwarked the muscle positions—defensive and offensive linemen, linebackers—with men who are not only bigger but infinitely stronger. Quarterbacks don't lift weights. Coaches make them stop when the season starts, says Bill Yeoman of Houston, "so it won't affect their throwing motion. Linemen, of course, never stop."
The consequence of all this is that what used to be a fairly minor weight differential has grown radically; the quarterback now stands out in every team picture as the one who looks underfed. The Missouri team that played Georgia Tech in the 1940 Orange Bowl had a backfield that averaged 180 pounds—and a line that averaged 189. Wallace Wade's 1926 Alabama Rose Bowl team had an interior line that averaged 195. Fifty years later, Pittsburgh's interior line in the Sugar Bowl averaged 237.
In the last 15 years, the weight of All-America interior linemen has risen an average of 1.3 pounds per year, while backs' weights have stayed about the same. The NCAA estimates that the average interior linemen will be 38% larger than all other players by the year 2000—and considerably more than that when compared to quarterbacks.