CARLISLE, Pa. — The subject of the numerous injuries suffered last season by NFL quarterbacks came up this week at Dickinson College. Some people, especially league owners and officials, were so concerned this offseason about protecting the quarterback that they voted for a new rule interpretation that penalizes pass rushers who take more than one step before hitting the quarterback after he has released the ball. Last year, they could take two steps.
Those who made this change obviously didn't consult Dave Butz.
"Too bad," the Washington Redskins' defensive tackle bellowed when asked this week about quarterbacks' injuries. "Too bad. There are a lot of other people hurt, too. The only reason why it's a big deal is quarterbacks are starters and there's only one of them on the field."
When things get slow at training camp, there's nothing like a good rules controversy to get everyone riled up. Every year, the NFL modifies its rules and regulations. Many of the changes are barely noticeable. Others, like last year's decision to go to the instant replay, make headlines all season. The so-called "one-step rule," an interpretation of the rule protecting the passer, falls somewhere in between. But, because it involves the quarterback, a potential sacker and a judgment call from an official, it is expected to become quite controversial.
Coach Joe Gibbs said he likes the new rule interpretation. But at least two of Gibbs' defensive linemen--Butz and end Charles Mann--don't care for the change and quarterback Jay Schroeder doesn't think it's going to work all that well.
"You may see more flags, but there's still going to be some quarterbacks getting injured," Schroeder said. "You can't stop a guy's momentum. If they're coming at you, they're not going to stop. It gets tough for them to pull up. They've been taught all these years to come in and go for you. You're not going to stop it in a matter of one year."
Gibbs said the Redskins have been stressing the change to their defense in practice and meetings. But, to talk to some of the players, they are not accepting the rule interpretation without a fight.
"I think football should be fair both ways," Butz said. "Linemen are getting injured, too."
Mann is concerned that defenders will second-guess themselves as they rush.
"You see the quarterback winding up," he said, "and you're thinking he's going to throw the ball and if he does, maybe you need to ease up a little bit so you don't run through him. But, if you ease up and he ends up holding the ball a second longer, you could have got a sack."
Last season, Gibbs vigorously defended Mann after he was called for roughing the passer, for hitting Green Bay quarterback Randy Wright on the helmet with his helmet. But Gibbs also has seen the way Chicago's Jim McMahon and others have been mistreated, and believes it's time to blow the whistle, literally, on late hits.
"I think we had to do something," Gibbs said. "I'd say 90% of the time, you're OK. But every now and then when a guy gets a free shot and the quarterback is unprotected, the guy chooses to take a cheap shot. What this is saying is you can't do that."
Other rules have been changed or modified for the 1987 season. Perhaps the most visible will be the rule that eliminates re-kicks on kickoffs out of bounds, with the exception of the first onside kick. If a regular kickoff sails out of bounds between the goal lines without being touched by the receiving team, the ball is marked 30 yards from the spot of the kickoff (the 35-yard line) or at the spot it went out, whichever the receiving team chooses.
"You'll still see some corner kicking but the kickers won't be flirting with the edge of the field like they used to," said kicker Steve Cox.
So there will be more kickoffs going to the main return man, which means there will be more kickoff returns. It also speeds up the game by eliminating a penalty.
In another change, offensive linemen who previously could not extend their arms while blocking downfield now can do that.
"Everybody was doing it anyway," said guard R.C. Thielemann.
One rule that is simply getting a trial run, to be voted on after a three-week exhibition experiment, is the 40-second clock, designed to speed up play by giving the offense 40 seconds to snap the ball once the previous play ends. Before, an offense got 30 seconds once the ball was spotted. It's safe to say Gibbs despises this idea.
"It's the 40-second disaster," Gibbs said after the Redskins' 23-17 victory over Pittsburgh. "It's just awful. You're rushed, you're hurried."
"It's going to cut down on everything we do," Schroeder said. "It's going to be tough on us because we've got guys running all over the field, shifting all over the place, running in motion and running down the field. To get them back in 40 seconds I think is going to be tough on us. We got a lot of plays off with one second or less than one second to go. That was hustling. I thought I was really pushing myself."
One result might be that after long incompletions, second-string receivers will have to come in.
To become a rule, the 40-second clock requires the approval of three-fourths of the 28 club owners.