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WE SHOULD BE PROTECTING ATHLETES, BUT THE HYPOCRITES WON’T LET US
Ignoring concerns about Tua Tagovailoa and brain trauma, critics are ripping the NFL for coddling quarterbacks, as NBA coach Steve Kerr contradicts his anti-violence stance in pardoning Green's punch
The fan wants to win a bet. The pass-rusher is targeting a sack quota. A head coach would like to keep his salary and benefits. And Troy Aikman? He must be channeling his inner Trump, or proving he’s stuck in 1987 by voicing on ESPN’s woke airwaves that we “take the dresses off” quarterbacks.
Amid the furor over what constitutes roughing the passer in the NFL, I get why people have vested interests in knocking the snot, piss and every other bodily fluid out of those playing the most important position in sports. What I don’t understand are disturbingly short memories of the topic that raged only two weeks ago: Tua Tagovailoa was allowed to keep playing in a punchdrunk state, which exposed flaws in the league’s concussion protocol and prompted modifications that no longer provide authority for a so-called doctor — or quack, or moonlighting beer vendor, or whoever was examining the Miami QB at halftime — to let an unstable player re-enter a game.
So that quickly, that irresponsibly, the football crowd shifts from grave concerns about Tagovailoa’s cognitive condition to widespread outcry that quarterbacks are being overly coddled. All it took were two questionable roughing penalties in Week 5, against Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett and Kansas City’s Chris Jones, for amnesia to kick in about player safety. This is where an allegiance to one’s team and an obsession over one’s four-figure wager overtakes the common-sense priority of brain trauma. In neither case, I will point out, was the quarterback put in serious harm’s way. Jarrett appeared to do nothing more Sunday than wrestle Tom Brady to the ground — “a long hug,” Brady called it — and, one evening later, Jones landed on Derek Carr after a sack and fumble recovery. But there are times in sports, ladies and gentlemen and kiddos, when a bigger prism is required.
This is one such time. In the context of safeguarding the health and preserving the long-term life quality of QBs — the most vulnerable players on a field, not to mention the most expensive investments for franchise ownership, with 25 making at least $25 million this season — excuse me for commending the game officials for erring on the side of caution.
You can’t have it both ways, people. You can’t demand a preventative umbrella in one breath, then remove the bubble when it fits a convenient purpose. The sport is too fast, furious and physical to expect every bang-bang call to be right, and if some flags are thrown unnecessarily and you happen to lose your wager, go cry to Bad Beats commissioner Scott Van Pelt. I’d rather protect the quarterbacks and let them benefit from a few softie breaks than re-establish the open-season mentality that enabled defenders, in successive Dolphins games, to rough up Tagovailoa.
Just to remind everybody, the NFL drives the American entertainment economy like few other companies. Franchises are worth between $8 billion and $3 billion. Regular-season games are seen by an average of almost 20 million viewers. Quarterbacks are the alpha dogs of that jungle, the stars of the extravaganzas, the men who most significantly determine the fate of a game or season. If Jones was the victim of a bad call, in a game the Chiefs won anyway, so be it. If Jarrett was the victim of a bad call, in a game the Falcons weren’t going to win and didn’t deserve to win, so be it. Like it or not, referees are instructed to heed a defining law in the rulebook: “When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the referee should always call roughing the passer.”
Thus, Carl Cheffers was doing his job when he penalized Jones. “The quarterback is in the pocket and he’s in a passing posture. He gets full protection of all the aspects of what we give the quarterback in a passing posture,” he told a pool reporter afterward. “My ruling was the defender landed on him with full body weight. The quarterback is protected from being tackled with full body weight.”
And, thus, Jerome Boger was doing his job when he penalized Jarrett. “What I had was the defender grabbed the quarterback while he was still in the pocket and unnecessarily throwing him to the ground,” he said in a pool report. “That is what I was making my decision based on.”
Any anxiety about Tagovailoa, still in concussion protocol and unable to start this Sunday for the Dolphins, has given way to indignation about the sport becoming wimp-ified. Aikman led the charge by demanding the NFL’s Competition Committee “look at this in the next set of meetings,” with his subsequent crack about “dresses” only revealing that safety is a sidebar in any gridiron discussion that prioritizes machismo.
“Just looking back on it, I’m still kind of left clueless on what I’m expected to do in that situation,” Jarrett said after the 21-15 loss to the Buccaneers. “The thing that hurt me the most was my team not being allowed to have the opportunity to go do what we need to do, you know. Nobody knows if we go out there and we get a touchdown. I’m not saying that lost us the game. I’m saying all we wanted was an opportunity we earned in that moment.”
“These are game-changing calls, man! It sucks!” tweeted Cowboys star Micah Parsons, one of the league’s dominant defenders. “How can we play football with this shit! NFL, speak up! The NFL is terrible! Change the rules or just make the league 7 on 7!”
“This is not football anymore,” tweeted NBC analyst Tony Dungy, the former Super Bowl championship coach. “I know we have to protect the (quarterback), but Chris Jones was recovering a fumble. We have gotten ridiculous with this.”
Tweeted ESPN analyst Robert Griffin, the ex-NFL quarterback: “The Falcons got ROBBED. Hitting the QB hard does not equal Roughing the Passer even if it’s Tom Brady.”
Jones, meanwhile, is among the legions saying it’s time to use instant replay to review roughing calls. “We’ve got to be able to review it in the booth, you know what I mean? I think that’s the next step for the NFL as a whole,” said the veteran defensive lineman, who has been penalized nine times for roughing in his career. “If we’re going to call it a penalty at that high (a rate), then we’ve got to be able to review it and make sure, because sometimes looks can be deceiving.”
True, but when league owners meet next week in New York, they likely will shoot down replay for two reasons. One, the many fiascos when pass interference calls were reviewable in 2019, which cost the Saints a Super Bowl berth and led to the immediate scrapping of a wretched idea. Two, current data indicates roughing-the-passer penalties are down 45 percent from the same point last season; only 22 have been called, opposed to 51 through Week 5 in 2021. When the Competition Committee gathers in the offseason, there’s no chance the panel of six team owners/executives and four head coaches will re-adopt an experiment that already has failed.
The debate involves enough practical thinkers, fortunately, to maintain the status quo. One who is emphasizing safety is Eli Manning, who, by no coincidence, was a quarterback by trade. “I think the NFL’s on the right path, and they want to make the game safer, and they want to protect the quarterbacks,” he told Yahoo Sports. “As a quarterback, I love the idea. Even coaches, I think they agree we gotta protect these quarterbacks. It’s such an important position, and we don’t have another guy that’s gonna step in and be as productive as your starting quarterback in most cases.”
He agrees with Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who wants to find a middle ground between safety and savagery but knows it’s difficult. “I understand protecting the quarterback — that’s important. It is important,” he said after his team rallied for a 30-29 victory. “Sometimes there’s a point where you’ve got to let guys play, and we just got to find where that happy medium is.”
Until the league finds it, defenders who are paid to terrorize opponents will have to deal with this safe quarterbacking haven. As it is, injuries have been a factor in the season’s first month, with teams able to compensate so far. Dak Prescott had thumb surgery and forced the Cowboys to use backup Cooper Rush, who has responded splendidly with a 4-0 record. Trey Lance is out for the season, forcing the 49ers to stay afloat with Jimmy Garoppolo. Tagovailoa was replaced by Teddy Bridgewater, who also suffered a head injury for a team now using Skylar Thompson as the starter. Bailey Zappe has announced himself in New England, while Mac Jones recovers from an ankle sprain. Baker Mayfield has lost a second chance in Carolina, where he’s out with an ankle issue.
Then consider the stumbles of elite quarterbacks who, for the first time, are looking older than their ages. That includes Brady, whose gossip-fueled marital problems and patchwork offensive line are draining life from his 45-year-old face. Matthew Stafford also is struggling without protection, while Russell Wilson is realizing he isn’t half as good as his successor in Seattle, the much-cheaper Geno Smith. Aaron Rodgers, whose inept receivers have left him looking constipated, took a hit to his throwing thumb on the final play Sunday in London and has a career-worst QB rating of 44.6 through five games. Joe Burrow, who nearly led Cincinnati to a Super Bowl title last February, made news when he spoke candidly about concussions.
“You can make all the rules you want to make the game as safe as you possibly can, but there is an inherent risk and danger with the game of football,” Burrow said. “You have 300-pound men running 20 miles an hour trying to take your head off while standing still trying to ignore it and find receivers that are open. … That’s part of the game, I think. Part of what we signed up for. You’re going to have head injuries, you’re going to tear your ACL, you’re going to break your arm. That’s the game we play, that’s the life we live, and we get paid handsomely for it. So, I think going into every game, we know what we are getting ourselves into.”
Damn right the league aims to protect its sacred QBs, especially when four top MVP candidates — Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts — flaunt improvisational talents that make them more vulnerable to injuries in the open field. Every defender in the league will have to find a way to avoid roughing penalties, even if it’s impossible to hit the brakes on a pass-rusher’s 290-pound body when he has floored the accelerator. “Some of them calls were bad,” Bears linebacker Roquan Smith said. “Those refs were in tough positions, so they were forced to make some tough calls, but I definitely don’t agree with some of them. The Carr one was worse. Come on. I’ve never seen a guy called, with the ball in his hands, for roughing the passer. You should be able to tackle. And if you have the ball, yeah. But that’s not my job.”
Exactly. Let the referees save lives, even at the risk of over-officiating, as everyone accepts the essential truth that quarterbacks are a hermetically sealed species. After yelling “You f’ing bitch” at Boger, Falcons coach Arthur Smith said, “Control what you can control. I have to figure out how I can coach those situations better.” Next time, after all, the same roughing call might benefit a team burned last week.
If there’s a hypocritical odor in the NFL sky, the smell is real. The matter of legislating violence in sports is a matter of selectivity. Steve Kerr, who has coached the Golden State Warriors to four NBA championships, rarely misses a chance to make impassioned pleas about curbing gun violence. His stance is understandable after his father was assassinated by gunmen in 1984, when he served as president of American University in Beirut.
Yet Kerr found himself rightfully criticized on social media Wednesday after refusing to suspend franchise stalwart Draymond Green, who only is required to pay an unspecified fine for the vicious practice punch he threw at teammate Jordan Poole. So a man who condemns violence in the real world is pardoning Green for violence in the basketball world, a decision reached with the approval of Poole, team leader Steph Curry and general manager Bob Myers.
“This is the biggest crisis that we’ve ever had since I’ve been coach here. Really serious stuff,” said Kerr, explaining Green will return to the team Thursday. “We’re not perfect. Our team isn’t perfect. Bob and I have definitely made our share of mistakes over the years. But we’re going to lean on the experience that we have together over the last nine years and trust that this is the best decision for our team.
“Draymond and I have been together for eight years. We’ve had plenty of run-ins. We’ve won championships together, we’ve lost championships together. We’ve been through an awful lot together. I trust him. He broke our trust with this incident. But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt because I think he’s earned that, and I think our team feels the same way. He knows he needs to regain that.”
Is Kerr speaking from both sides of his mouth? Or is he acknowledging the troubling truth of his profession: Sports plays by its own set of rules, apart from those of a civilized society. “We take great pride in what we’ve built here, the continuity, the culture,” he said. “And there’s no way around it, that culture has been damaged by this incident. So you have to work to repair that. You have to find that vibe again every day.
“The beauty of this game and what our team has been about is finding that joy in the game but also within a team, with the relationships, with the goal, with the collective in mind. When it’s right, like it was last year, like it’s been many times, you can feel it. And when it’s wrong, and you guys have watched us, there’s been times when it has been wrong. You can see that; you can feel that. We’ve got to work hard internally to try to re-generate the vibe that we need. Because we know, we’ve lived this. You don’t win championships on talent alone. It takes chemistry. It takes a collective will. And a trust. And that has to be rebuilt right now.”
A coach wants to win a fifth championship. An owner knows another trophy ceremony is coming next week. A general manager realizes he’s probably letting Green enter free agency next summer, if he doesn’t trade him at the deadline for more assets in a plentiful organization. The fans want to enjoy a dynasty at any cost, even with no shame.
I get hypocrisy. I don’t have to like it.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.