John McGrath

John McGrath: In skewed view of NFL, punters protected more than quarterbacks

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, left, is hit by Los Angeles Rams defensive end William Hayes after throwing a pass in a game this past September. John McGrath says quarterbacks should be better protected against late hits.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, left, is hit by Los Angeles Rams defensive end William Hayes after throwing a pass in a game this past September. John McGrath says quarterbacks should be better protected against late hits. The Associated Press

A prediction: When the Seahawks face Buffalo on Monday night, quarterback Russell Wilson is going to be leveled moments after releasing the ball.

The press box announcer will describe the sequence something like this: “Wilson pass complete to Doug Baldwin for seven yards. Credit Lorenzo Alexander with a quarterback hit.”

Unless it’s a blatant roughing-the-passer penalty, instigating a collision with an NFL quarterback is tolerated to the point the pass rusher is “credited” with a hit.

Rules permitting pass rushers to hit the quarterback — even after he no longer has the ball — are in contrast to rules generally prohibiting special teams players from making contact with a punter. While I happen to admire the skill required to boot a football on a high and long spiral, I have never attended a game hoping to watch a succession of punts. I suspect you haven’t, either.

And yet, hitting a punter as he punts is considered a stupid mistake, while hitting a passer after he passes is considered integral to the game. This is crazy. Punters are replaceable roster parts. Quarterbacks are the most valued commodity in sports.

Last week, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton lamented how arbitrarily roughing-the-passer rules are applied. It’s a judgment call, similar to a home-plate umpire’s flexible definition of a strike zone, and Newton wants to see flags dropped when blitzing linebackers take every opportunity to pummel him after he’s released the ball.

Newton’s history of polarizing fans predates his 2010 season at Auburn, where he won the Heisman Trophy amid allegations his father used the Florida transfer as fodder in a bidding war. When Newton takes an interview-room podium adorned in a wardrobe seemingly culled from a GQ ad, and bemoans the league that has made him a multi-millionaire, his many detractors react as if hornets aroused from their nest.

But about the absurdity of putting quarterbacks in harm’s way, Newton is spot on. Call him a diva, call him a whiner, call him whatever. He plays a position that steers the NFL wheel. Elite quarterbacks — and there are maybe 10 of them — spike both TV ratings and merchandise sales. When elite quarterbacks are injured and replaced by barely serviceable substitutes, it can be the difference between a 12-4 playoff team and a 4-12 train wreck.

Wilson happens to be an elite quarterback whose nagging injuries this season have impeded his dynamic versatility. But rather than taking a stance on an issue that is relevant to his survival in the NFL, he’s determined to be remembered as Captain Beefheart.

“If I didn’t want to play football, if I didn’t want to get hit, I’d be playing tennis,” Wilson said the other day. “That’s just one of the things — you know you’re going to get hit, and you know you’re going to take some tough hit every once in a while, and you have to hang in there.”

Wilson’s noble vow to “hang in there” doesn’t justify archaic NFL rules rendering him a human tackling dummy whenever he drops back in the pocket.

The NFL’s competition committee — the folks who tweak the rule book every season — would be wise to acknowledge Newton’s frustration and adopt the same no-tolerance policy on hitting the quarterback as it has on hitting the punter: If he’s in possession of the football, anything goes aside from helmet-to-helmet contact. Once the football is released, it’s hands off.

Such a radical reduction in quarterback pressures, of course, would give offenses even more freedom to throw the ball, and minimize the significance of any given touchdown in a 68-65 shootout. So here’s the flip side: Allow defensive backs the chance to break up a pass without fearing incidental contact will draw a flag.

The NFL’s pass-interference rules are a mess. A last-second Hail Mary lob that finds a cornerback jousting with a receiver can result in a 60-yard penalty. Some officials drop a flag, others don’t. Rules that apply in the first quarter don’t necessarily apply during a two-minute drill in the fourth quarter.

It’s a quandary with a simple solution: Allow the defensive back to do whatever it takes, short of tackling the receiver while the ball is in the air, to break up the pass. Grab an arm, bump a hip, just about anything is fair on both sides. Best man wins.

My advice to the NFL’s competition committee: Restrict the contact that can be made on the quarterback who’s delivered a throw, and liberalize draconian rules regarding pass interference.

If nothing else, stop “crediting” pass rushers for barreling into the athletes whose hands rock the cradle of the world’s most successful pro sports league.

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