The 2023 NFL season has been marked by a notable increase in injuries, especially among starting quarterbacks, raising concerns about the overall dynamics of the league. Some have questioned the already substantial rules in place that are supposed to protect quarterbacks. Others are concerned with cascading effects on viewership due to less-than-exciting matchups, the lack of production from other star players when their quarterback is missing, or how some QBs seem to get more favorable calls than others.
Let us look at each of these issues related to the NFL’s overprotection of QBs.
Rules in Place to Protect NFL QBs
Over the last few years, the NFL has implemented new rules to protect quarterbacks that make them almost untouchable. Some of these include not landing on top of the quarterback when tackling him, not hitting him after he releases the ball, and not hitting him below the knees. While all of these sound like good ideas to prevent injury, referees have been inconsistent in enforcement, and it’s been difficult for defenders to really understand what is allowed. And the surge in quarterback injuries during the 2023 season has sparked debates about the effectiveness of these measures—if injuries are actually inevitable, does it make sense to institute safety rules that seriously impact play?
The NFL’s Overprotection of QBs Has A Lot to do with TV Ratings
Quarterbacks are often the face of a franchise and the main selling point for networks and the NFL. Naturally, there is concern that when QBs get injured, it can significantly impact the viewership of games.
The NFL creates its schedule months in advance, aiming to place highly anticipated matchups in the best TV time slots. Oftentimes, it’s the quarterback matchups the NFL considers, not so much the teams. For example, a QB might return to face his former team for the first time. These plans lose their luster when star quarterbacks are sidelined.
Surprisingly enough, NFL viewership is now doing just fine, if not better than ever. NBC Sports reported that the NFL averaged 17.8 million viewers in 2023, the most since the 2015 season. 72 out of the top 75 most-watched shows on TV this season have been NFL games! As of the end of the regular season, the NFL saw 66 different starting quarterbacks. While some of these changes came from playoff teams resting their starters, a large portion came from injuries to starters and teams scrambling to find backups, often cycling through a number of guys to find a solution. So why is viewership the highest it’s been in years if we’re watching two backups face off in a meaningless game? Many believe it’s the underdog factor — we all love rooting for them. There’s nothing better than seeing the guy everybody counted out get a chance to prove everybody wrong and have a little swag while he does it. Whatever the reason, it seems as though the loss of a starting quarterback has less impact on viewership than commonly assumed.
The QB Effect
When a team loses its QB, it tends to have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. The offense tends to become more conservative and predictable, the wide receivers produce less, the defense is on the field more due to the lack of offensive production, and opposing defenses tend to play with more confidence against the backups. Overall, when a backup steps in, it can disrupt the rhythm of the entire team.
The group that is hurt the most by QB injuries is by far the wide receivers. Timing is everything in professional sports, and QBs work with their receivers daily, throwing hundreds if not thousands of balls in order to know exactly when and where to put the ball on game day. These players usually will spend all offseason and extra time outside of team activities to build chemistry and perfect their timing so that they are on the same page when it matters most. And then suddenly, a different quarterback gets thrown in there — and it can throw everything off. The poorer stats and production that result can become a major factor when it comes time to negotiate a new contract or when testing free agency. One player who was expected to have a major breakthrough this season was Garrett Wilson of the New York Jets. He has put up great numbers considering his lackluster quarterback play, posting two 1,000-yard seasons. His sophomore season was expected to be behind the arm of Aaron Rodgers, but instead, he was given another year with Zach Wilson, Tim Boyle, and Trevor Siemian. Hopefully, next season will show just how dominant he truly can be with a healthy Rodgers under center. If not, his contract has the potential to be directly impacted by it.
Favorable Penalty Calls
The rise in penalties has raised discussions about whether certain quarterbacks receive more favorable penalty calls than others. There has always been an argument across all professional sports that the superstar players receive more fouls/penalties than others. The NFL has definitely been accused of this over players like Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Oftentimes, you will see a star receiver or quarterback motioning or pleading for a flag after a play, and a couple of seconds later, the flag comes flying in, leading to a lot of speculation and questions regarding the consistency of NFL officiating. In a way, it does make sense that a referee might be more inclined to call a flag for a star player rather than a backup or rookie since they have more experience or talent, and it’s more likely a penalty was committed. Justin Jefferson is likelier to cause pass interference than a rookie receiver; he knows how to bait the corner, draw the flag, and what the referees are looking for. With that being said, the point is that it shouldn’t matter who’s involved — it should matter if a penalty was committed.
A major argument in the case of quarterbacks is that the more mobile and rugged QBs get much less respect from the officials. Some hard-nosed quarterbacks that come to mind are Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield. They are hard to bring down and have a reputation for being tough QBs who can take hits. This has led many to believe that they receive fewer penalty calls than those who protect themselves better, like Mahomes or Joe Burrow. However, the stats show a bit of the opposite. This season, Josh Allen leads the league in drawing “roughing the passer” (RTP) penalties with seven, Baker Mayfield is third, having drawn four calls, and Mahomes and Burrow have three, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. In fact, the numbers are all very even across the board, as each starting quarterback draws around two to five calls a year.
Our perceptions may be a mixed bag of factors that lead us to our final opinion on players and whether they get more love from the officials than others. One of these factors could be fans putting a microscope on specific players and teams they dislike. Another factor could be the countless media outlets involved in professional sports using their platforms to push narratives, stirring up some strong debates and emotions that can plant seeds in the minds of fans. Lastly, superstar players are always going to be accused of being favored by the league because they are the ones who sell. No matter your opinion on officiating and whether or not certain teams or players are helped out, the NFL (just like all pro sports) wants to see their big market teams and the faces of their league make deep playoff runs and win championships. And that is why the NFL overprotects their quarterbacks.
The NFL’s Overprotection of QBs Is Simply Not Working | The 2023 NFL Season in a Nutshell
The 2023 season will always be remembered for the slew of injuries that plagued the QB position. Sixteen quarterbacks (half of the league) were sidelined for at least one week with an injury, with seven of them experiencing season-ending injuries. This season saw 66 different starting quarterbacks under center, which tied the NFL record in a non-strike season set last year.
What seems to set 2023 apart is the severity of the injuries and the star power that was sidelined this season. In 2022, there were many QB changes, too, but they were mainly performance-based, not injury-based. The rise of quarterback injuries in the NFL has brought several issues to the forefront. The effort the league has put in to protect the quarterback has seemed to not have an impact at all in keeping them healthy, the injuries have derailed many matchups that had great potential and anticipation behind them, and the extent the NFL has gone to enforce the new QB rules has viewers questioning the consistency of the referee.
Clearly, the NFL needs to address the record-setting number of quarterback injuries, as their health is crucial for the league’s appeal. There are probably tens of factors that have led to this concerning number of injuries, but strangely, there seemed to be fewer injuries in previous decades when almost anything was legal on the field. In an era where helmets and equipment are the most technologically advanced, doctors, trainers, and medicine are at their most advanced, and there are more rules in place for player safety than ever before, maybe it all comes down to just bad luck.
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The NFL’s Overprotection of QBs article is by our contributor, Brandon Allison | if you want to write for SportsE Media, reach out to us, and let’s talk.