Much has been made of the NFL’s new helmet rule, but another rule change (or “point of emphasis” as the league calls it) will have a great effect on the game– and not in the way it’s intended to. This season, the NFL is instituting a new slide rule hoping to reduce hits to quarterbacks. In practice though, the new rule will likely increase them, and potentially expose quarterbacks to more violent hits.
The new rule is as follows: both a head-first dive and feet-first slide by a quarterback will be treated as the player giving himself up, and the ball will be spotted where he first made contact with the ground. Previously, only a feet-first slide was treated as such. When a quarterback dove head-first, the ball was placed at the spot where he was touched, usually 3-4 yards after he started the dive. The goal of the rule change is to further protect quarterbacks, as well as to eliminate confusion for defenders not knowing whether a quarterback was about to dive head or feet first, and therefore whether he was allowed to be hit or not.
The problem with the rule is that head-first and feet-first dives are not the same, and should not be treated as such. Feet-first slides are used in situations where the quarterback has progressed past his necessary mark, and is safely sliding before contact with a defender. Head-first dives are primarily used in more risky situations such as when the quarterback is stretching for the first down marker, or reaching for the goal line. In most cases, head-first dives occur when defenders are bearing down. Usually in these instances, the quarterback does not want to give himself up–or else he would have simply slid with his feet. The rule change, however, mandates that he is giving himself up, and marks the ball where he first slides, taking off an important few yards to the final spot of the ball.
There’s a good chance this rule does the opposite of its intention, and actually exposes quarterbacks to more violent hits. The quarterback, knowing that he can no longer slide to advance the ball, will have to remain upright in order to gain those valuable final yards for a first down or touchdown–leaving him unprotected and vulnerable to defenders in his path.
The new rule essentially gives quarterbacks a choice when faced with the first down marker within distance, and a defender closing in–he can either stay on his feet and take the hit while fighting for the yards, or slide in order to avoid contact and lose the first down. In the heat of the game, few quarterbacks will voluntarily surrender the extra yards–leaving them susceptible to the exact hits the league is hoping to avoid.