The NFL is a copycat league, and if that simple truth holds firm, we’ll be seeing more and more option-centric offenses in the NFL. That’s all fine and great, but with the increase in option quarterbacks comes an increase in injuries to the NFL’s most popular stars.
The NFL has always been about protecting its stars, and this offseason should be no different than any other in that regard.
“There have been discussions on if the quarterback should get more protection on option plays,” a source told the Washington Post. “I’m not sure if you’ll see anything happen there.”
As it stands, the NFL does offer some protection to option quarterbacks if they clearly show defenders they no longer have the football.
“The moment that [the quarterback] releases that ball, he has to present to the defense as quickly as he possibly can that he’s no longer in the play,” Referee Gene Steratore said last summer.
Essentially the NFL is currently using common sense when deciding whether to penalize a defender for a hit on an option quarterback that no longer has the ball. If the quarterback is still carrying out a fake, he’s fair game. Furthermore, officials likely lean towards not calling a penalty on a defender so long as the hit isn’t blatantly late.
The NFL could have a major problem in regard to protecting option quarterbacks. By not giving them any more protection, the NFL won’t be able to cut back on injuries to those players. If, however, the NFL offers them more protection, teams will have an added incentive to utilize option offense because they’ll be less susceptible to season-altering injuries to their top players.
Introducing a roughing the quarterback-style penalty to protect a player carrying out a pitch in an option play has the potential to change how defenses have to defend against option offenses. Because such a penalty could fundamentally alter how teams have to defend against the option, the NFL is likely going to decide to wait and see if such a penalty is really warranted to protect option quarterbacks.
At this point, we haven’t seen a big enough sample size to conclude whether option quarterbacks really need any extra protection. Running an option offense has, in the past, been a gamble. On one hand, you may be able to gain plenty of yardage on the ground, eating the clock at the same time, but that ability to control the ball comes at a cost under the current rules. Teams have to be willing to take the risk of getting a star quarterback injured to run an option offense. While giving those players more protection won’t eliminate that risk, it will limit that risk to some degree.
The NFL rulebook is already complex enough, and hopefully the powers that be understand that. Quarterbacks are already protected more than any other position in the NFL, and that protection has given rise to high-octane offenses that don’t have to fear heavy-hitting defenses nearly as much as they had to in the past. Further protection of quarterbacks would only continue that trend, and it’s something the NFL should avoid unless it’s absolutely necessary. At this point, it’s not clear if such a move is necessary, so the NFL should at least put off any decision to change rules protecting option quarterbacks for another year.