Publish date:


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

Down go the quarterbacks. Sometimes one per game. Sometimes two. Sometimes bunches. Down they go. It's another one of those years. By the end of the seventh week, 19 of them had been knocked out of action for one game or more. The Cleveland Browns had three quarterbacks out at one time, and for that reason their payroll lists five at the position, drawing a combined salary of $2.39 million. The Detroit Lions are down to a third-stringer, and so were the Indianapolis Colts earlier in the season. And when the Chicago Bears played the Lions on Oct. 9, every quarterback on both rosters saw action.

So what should the NFL do to keep the poor devils from becoming extinct? Change the rules? Draft steelworkers to play the position? Put a Red Cross insignia on every quarterback and tell defensive players, "Hands off"?

"Before making any kind of judgment, before becoming an alarmist, look at the genesis of the injuries and see if there's any trend," says New York Giants general manager George Young. "Until you have that information, you can't progress."

That's exactly what we've done. We took a look at the quarterbacks who have been felled this year, including the Atlanta Falcons' Scott Campbell, who tore knee ligaments late in the preseason, and examined how they were injured (see box, page 20). The survey doesn't include the Washington Redskins' Doug Williams, who missed four weeks because of an appendectomy. Here's the picture through Week 7:

Type of Action Causing Injury—Hit behind the line while throwing or just after the ball was released: 9. Hit while scrambling or running downfield: 4. Hit while throwing on a scramble: 1. Sacks: 2. Freak plays: 2 (the Browns' Mike Pagel separated a shoulder while making a tackle on a blocked kick return, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Bubby Brister fell over a player on the ground). Noncontact injuries: 2 (the Green Bay Packers' Randy Wright suffered a pulled groin muscle and the Colts' Jack Trudeau cartilage damage in his left knee after collapsing under pressure).

Type of Player (or Object) Hit by—Linebacker: 5. Defensive lineman: 8. Defensive back: 2. Helmet: 1.

Part of the Body Injured—Knee: 5. Shoulder and/or shoulder blade: 4. Ankle: 4. Wrist, hand and/or finger: 3. Ribs: 2. Groin: 1. Elbow: 1. Total: 20 (Denver Broncos' John Elway was injured in more than one area).

What does this tell us? It shows that 4½ times as many quarterbacks got hurt while throwing or just after throwing than while being sacked. There were no head injuries that required a player to sit out the following week.

Some other interesting data:

•No penalties were called on any of the plays that resulted in injury.

•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."

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."

"Maybe they ought to put a glass booth around them, like the Pope has," says Giants noseguard Erik Howard.

Hickey feels the answer is to get quarterbacks working off a shorter drop and to teach them how to throw the ball away when their man is covered and to brace themselves for a hit. He also favors returning to a running game to calm down the defenses. "Pound the ball at them, and pretty soon they'll start using sturdier linebackers," he says. "Use bigger wide-outs to block downfield. and they'll bring in bigger cornerbacks to play the run tougher. Then people will look at those defenses and realize they can throw on them, and you'll start moving back toward where we are now. It's a game of action-reaction cycles. Always was, always will be."

Brister suggests adding another player on offense. The Patriots' chief talent scout. Dick Steinberg, thinks that quarterbacks should be allowed to ground the ball intentionally at any time to prevent late hits. And San Francisco coach Bill Walsh says one solution would be limiting the number of blitzes, as is done in the Pro Bowl. But then he quickly changes his mind. "That would be severe surgery to the game." he says. "We've gone as far as we can with the rules."

So what should the NFL do? Let it blow over and hope that the cycle has run its course? Go to a more conservative, maximum-protection style of offense? Teach quarterbacks to drop, look and fire, even if it means throwing the ball away? Dan Marino, the quarterback with the least number of sacks per dropback, has gotten booed in Miami this season for unloading early. But he also has remained healthy and hasn't missed a game.

There's one more solution we haven't mentioned. "What I'm going to do is get as strong as I can to protect myself," says Colt rookie quarterback Chris Chandler, who does extra work on running and strength conditioning. "I think the weight room has become as important for quarterbacks as it is for linemen."

Maybe that idea makes the most sense of all.



Nailed here by the Rams' Mike Wilcher, Packer Randy Wright (16) did himself in.

"Quarterbacks think they're invulnerable, then they go down and they're surprised."