Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Falcons, is the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee which is, in part, responsible for rule changes and clarifications. In a regular feature as part of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s football coverage, McKay will break down a rule or issue facing the league each week.
This week: The rule for when a quarterback becomes a runner and loses his protections as a passer.
Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III left the pocket and rushed for 7 yards before getting hit by Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
Griffin’s head snapped back into defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who was in pursuit. Griffin, Washington’s prized rookie signal-caller, left the game with a mild concussion, and the Falcons pulled out a 24-17 victory.
Once Griffin tucked the ball to run he lost the protections afforded a passing quarterback and could be tackled like a running back. Under those circumstances, the normal unnecessary-roughness rules applied.
After the game, Falcons coach Mike Smith was correct when he said that it was clear that Griffin was a runner.
“The way that you look at passers, is when a quarterback declares himself a runner by tucking the football and advancing the ball, he’s a runner at that point and therefore he doesn’t have any of those quarterback protections that apply to the passer,” McKay said.
It was Griffin’s only run of the game.
“When he’s a passer, he has protections whether he’s in the pocket or whether he’s out of the pocket,” McKay said. “When he’s out of the pocket, he still has the quarterback protections, except you can’t hit low and you’re not limited by the one-step rule.”
Weatherspoon’s hit to the chest area was within the rules.
“[The running quarterback] has all of the other protections,” McKay said. “You can’t hit in the head. You can’t hit him with your head, all of those things.”
Quarterbacks who sometimes run the option or come off of bootlegs as runners, such as Philadelphia’s Michael Vick and Carolina’s Cam Newton, are no longer passers and can be treated as running backs.
“The good thing about our league is, there is plenty of tape that shows how you can do this, and that tape is shown to the players,” McKay said. “They have really conformed in the way that they tackle quarterbacks.”
Some quarterbacks have complained over the years that they need more protection as runners. But from the defense’s perspective, when they are running an option play, how is a defender supposed to know if the quarterback is a runner or is going to pitch or hand the ball off?
“When you run the option, the quarterback takes the risk,” McKay said.