The Electric Commentary

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Dangerous NFL Slide Rule

We all know that the NFL is nuts about protecting quarterbacks. You can't hit them in the head, you can't go for the knees, and you can't hit them even a little bit late. Just last week Packer DT Cullen Jenkins was penalized for a blow to the head on a routine play in which he clearly hit Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck in the back. Jenkins' hit was a textbook clean hit on the QB, but the mere appearance of a high hit on the NFL's protected class was enough to draw a flag, and while the call may not have cost the Packers the game, it made any potential comeback much more difficult.

The New York Giants also recently lost a game when one of their defensive linemen had Titan QB Vince Young wrapped up, but released him prematurely, clearly believing that the play was over. Young scooted 20 yards, converting a long fourth down and eventually rallied from 21 points down to win the game.

We know that the NFL sees these guys as the stars, and it wants to keep them in the game. However, it's worth mentioning that at least one NFL rule designed to help QBs actually makes an injury more likely. This is the slide rule.

If a QB takes off running, he can end the play at any point by sliding feet first. When a QB slides feet first he is down immediately, the ball is spotted at the point where the QB started the slide, and no one may touch him. It sounds like a nice idea in theory, but in practice it exposes the QB to more dangerous hits, and it puts his legs in an awkward position.

When a WR catches a pass and knows that he will be hit, he usually goes into the "fetal position." He goes down as fast as he can, curled up, with his back exposed to contact. Almost everyone reacts this way if they know that they will be hit, and as is the case with most instincts, there are good reasons for this. It minimizes the head's exposure to danger. By getting low the body makes it more likely that the assailer will miss altogether, and if he does make contact much of his leverage will be lost. If a player suspects that he will be hit, this is his best defense.

The slide rule, on the other hand, puts the player in a very vulnerable position. The QB's entire front, including his head, is exposed to contact, and due to the fact that any slide will have your lower body on the ground first, your upper body will stay off the ground longer, allowing for bigger hits to more vulnerable areas.

Sliding also exposes QBs to a higher risk of non-contact injury. The feet first slide is sometimes an awkward motion. In baseball, where sliding is commonplace, sliding injuries are also routine. Milwaukee Brewer Geoff Jenkins once lost an entire season when he slid into third too hard and broke his ankle. Pulled muscles, ripped tendons and ligaments, and broken bones are also an all too common outcome of sliding. Football players are probably at greater risk as they tend to be larger, their pads make them top-heavy, and they play certain games on artificial turf (which has admittedly gotten better).

Ah, but the slide eliminates the contact risk, you say. Well, that's the intention, but this rule is in conflict with reality. Sometimes the QB does slide with no potential tacklers around, but more often than not, the QB will slide and the defenders will be forced to pull up, spur of the moment. I'm just estimating, but I'd wager that over 70% of QB slides still end in some sort of contact. This makes sense as no one can read minds and just because a QB decides to slide does not mean that the defender will manage to pull up in time.

Trent Green, for example, ended up with a concussion because he was hit while sliding. It is likely that, had he simply curled up or even dove helmet first that he would have been just fine.

A lot of this is speculation, and if it is a problem, it's a minor one to be sure. After all, if there were a rash of QB sliding injuries, QBs would probably stop sliding, however, the small sample of sliding QBs is probably responsible for hiding any pattern here.

I don't believe that there is necessarily anything wrong with the sliding rule, after all, we allow punt returners to call for a fair catch due to their especially vulnerable situation, but you should think through the likely consequences of a rule before you implement it. The league has made a ton of mistakes in protecting QBs. Most the time there is no reason to treat QBs any differently. While throwing they are slightly more prone to big hits (especially from the blind side) and it is plausible that a few extra rules may be prudent, but when a QB takes off to run, he is no longer a wide open target. At that point, he is a runner and he expects to get hit. The NFL's sliding rule is an incentive to put a player in a dangerous position, and most of the time, a running QB should not slide.

A few weeks ago Tom Brady faked a slide as he was about to be hit by Brian Urlacher. He managed to pick up a first down on the play as a result. I'll wager that next time a QB slides in front of Urlacher he won't be so quick to pull up.

Finally, I just watched Brian Urlacher get flagged for a perfectly legitimate hit on Brad Johnson. This really is getting out of control.

(Note: I am watching the Viking-Bear game for reasons that I will explain later, but I must mention that with 6:12 to play in the first quarter, Brad Johnson threw what I believe was a backward pass that was batted by Ogunleye and fell in front of the RB. This should have been a live ball and a Bear D-Lineman did pick it up, but it was ruled dead. No commentator mentioned it, and no replay was shown. I could be wrong, but, as I said, no replay was shown, and that is what it looked like to me.)


  • Couple of quick things. First, w.r.t. the Brad Johnson pass, I had the game DVR'd and just reviewed it -- from the only angle shown it is impossible to tell if it went forward or backward before Ogunleye hit it. Not that it matters, but by the time it hit the ground in front of the RB, it had clearly gone forward.

    Second, though it's not directly related to your point about the slide rule, I thought I'd mention that the ridiculousness of protecting players has reached the college game too. Dduring the USC/Notre Dame game last weekend, a player got flagged for "a hit toward the head." Actual contact was made in the bicep, below the shoulder pads. (This hit was on a ND receiver who had jumped up to catch a pass.)

    Again, not related to the substance of your post, but I just want to complain -- like the Kiwanuka/Young play, in the Browns loss to the Steelers a few weeks ago a Browns DT did the same thing. Roethlisberger looked like he was going to heave the ball downfield, but pulled it down at the last second. The Browns player wrapped him up, but thought that Roethlisberger actually released the ball, and let him go, making the "I didn't rough the passer" motion with his hands up.

    Also in that game, a Browns INT-TD was called back for roughing the QB when a (different) Browns DT blocked Roethlisberger while he was trying to make a tackle. Seriously, how can you get flagged for roughing the passer WHEN HE WAS TRYING TO MAKE A TACKLE AFTER HE THREW AN INTERCEPTION? If he wants to be protected, then he should not be allowed to make a play. Once he tries to tackle the ballcarrier, he is just like any other defender.


    By Blogger Nye!, at 8:40 PM  

  • Lots of QB's who slide avoid any significant contact. Probably 75% of those I see do. Granted, wimpy WRs who lie down also do a decent job of not getting hurt without sliding. If QB's really want to avoid injury then they can slide earlier. I have yet to hear of one injuring their feet from sliding. It's a bit hard to drop to fetal from a full run.

    Ironically, since you didn't watch the Packers play, Favre got smacked from behind on a slide.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 4:32 AM  

  • Good info Nye!. I still wish I would have seen a replay.

    Scott, really? I almost always see contact on sliding plays.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 9:54 PM  

  • Significant contact. Like they get a pat or something. Lots of old slow QB's just go down before anyone gets close to them. I do seem a decent amount of hits though. Even those don't look as bad as some slow lanky guy waddling around until he gets drilled by a 230 lb human missile.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 11:44 PM  

  • Good Article, thanks for your article. :)

    By Blogger Uzumaki Naruto, at 9:07 PM  

  • Good Article, thanks for your article. :)

    By Blogger Uzumaki Naruto, at 2:19 AM  

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