What if the NFL Penalized Quarterbacks for Making Dangerous Throws?

In case you didn’t read the injury report from Week 7 last Sunday, pretty much everyone on an NFL roster suffered a major injury. Alright, that was a little bit of an exaggeration. But still, some big names were part of the bloodbath: Sam Bradford, Doug Martin, Jermichael Finley, etc.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that the NFL needs more defensive rule changes in order to prevent player injuries. That argument has already been overdiscussed and the players’ opinions on both sides of the ball have been aired (including Richard Sherman’s piece for MMQB yesterday).

And besides, there’s not many more restrictions that can be placed on the defense at this point. They can’t lead with their helmets anymore. They can’t hit a defenseless receiver. They can’t punish a guy who is running out of bounds. They can only tap a quarterback who is sliding to the ground, and they can’t dive at his legs in the pocket.

But sometimes, their huge hits that are considered dangerous by the league are not their fault. They are gift-wrapped for them because of ill-advised throws that quarterbacks make to receivers running across the middle into tight windows of double or zone coverages. Routes like slants, sqaure-ins and crossing patterns against zones where a safety or linebacker is waiting for a receiver to run into their area of responsibility are often a recipe for disaster. Allow me to demonstrate:

With the exception of the last video where Briggs was flagged for his hit on Calvin Johnson, these were all legal hits (and you could argue that Briggs’ hit was legal since he led with his shoulder). At least one of them resulted in a serious injury, as Floyd was carted off the field on a stretcher and lost for the entire 2013 season. In regards to the others, I am not sure how Wes Welker, Early Doucet, Brad Smith and Dustin Keller actually survived. And plays like this happen on a regular basis, including this past weekend. I just couldn’t find the footage to include.

At what point do we consider penalizing quarterbacks for making these kind of throws that get their receivers absolutely destroyed? My argument is that Mark Sanchez is just as much to blame for the devastating hit that Keller took as Ray Lewis is. He failed to recognize that it would be a terrible idea to try to throw the ball to his tight end running a slant route over the middle against a zone coverage right into the most feared hitter of the past decade. Even if Sanchez didn’t make the hit himself, in my mind, he was a direct cause of the hit, and was putting his teammate in danger.

I played defensive back in high school, and the defense we ran was primarily a Cover 3 where I would play seven yards off the receiver, get a chance to look at the quarterback pre-snap and right after the play started. Often times there would be a quick drop, he would look right at me, and I would immediately start to break forward because I knew a slant route was coming. I could time it perfectly so that my helmet or shoulder pads would arrive right at the ball when the receiver did for a relatively big hit. I say relatively because I was only 140 pounds, unlike the physical specimens that play in the NFL and could hospitalize most people if they laid a whack on them.

I used to marvel that quarterbacks would still try to throw the slant route against me even though it was obvious I was in zone coverage and had an easy shot at their receiver. Every time I read the slant route, it was like Christmas Day: I knew I was getting a big hit gift-wrapped for me.

It’s the same situation in the NFL. Quarterbacks like Philip Rivers or Carson Palmer who like to fit the ball into tight spots to show off their arm strength and whose offenses run a lot of slants, square-ins or crossing routes gift-wrap huge hits for defenses. So do ones like Sanchez or Brandon Weeden who are terrible at playing the position.

So why not penalize the quarterback for making playing conditions unsafe, either with a 15-yard penalty or a fine after the game if the receiver that suffered the hit had to leave the field for any length of time? I get that there would be difficulties ironing out the kinks in this rule because defensive players are so fast that quarterbacks could claim that they didn’t anticipate them breaking on the play so quickly. But at the same time, quarterbacks can make some of the throws they do because they know that there’s not much risk of an interception on patterns like slants and crossing routes – the only risk is the big hit on their receiver that could result in a personal foul. But hey, that’s 15 yards and a first down right?

Another counterargument is that technically every time a quarterback throws the ball and a receiver catches it (even when the receiver has a good three or four steps to run before being tackled), he is putting the receiver in danger because playing in the NFL is dangerous. Totally get that. What I would be suggesting would be to penalize quarterbacks who throw to defenseless receivers – basically guys who catch the call and take one step and BOOM they get leveled or get annihilated before they even get a chance to turn their head around. The rule would be would be a judgment call for the refs just like when they call a personal foul on a defender for hitting a receiver on a ball that is not caught.

Penalizing quarterbacks for dangerous throws would make for better quarterback play in my opinion. They would have to try harder to read that the safety playing over the top or the linebacker breaking to the flat was a legitimate threat to decapitate that receiver they wanted to try to throw to. They would have to hit their check down receiver more often, resulting in higher completion percentages. Most importantly, they would have a cleaner conscience not sending their teammates off the field on stretchers.