There's a common line of thinking out there that you must protect your quarterback in order to win football games. How we define "protect" could be different to different people. Some may believe it's based on sack numbers, hurries or even hits.
Whatever the definition, the particular reasoning for it is simple: You want to keep your quarterback healthy and upright. He can't possibly throw the ball down the field with any kind of accuracy or conviction if he's constantly being harassed and taken to the ground.
This is, after all, the guy you're paying millions of dollars to in most cases and one of, if not the face of your franchise. Keeping him healthy must be a priority.
But outside of keeping your face of the franchise healthy, does protecting your quarterback lead to more wins?
When looking strictly at "quarterback hits" from 2012 playoff teams, there's certainly a wide range of rankings for teams and how well they protected the most important piece of their team.
Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2012, only seven of them finished in the top half of these "quarterback hits" rankings. Four of the 12 were also in the bottom 10 in the NFL.
Now there are a lot of variables that affect these numbers, as there are with any statistics in team sports. But you can't necessarily say that a team whose quarterback is constantly getting hit won't be successful. This chart shows you that there's no pattern to "quarterback hits" and wins.
Two of the better quarterbacks in the NFL over the last decade have been Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Neither one of them is particularly mobile in the pocket, at least not in the sense that we've come to see with these young phenoms like Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
Both Brady and Manning have an ability to get the ball out of their hands in time for their guys to make plays while also avoiding taking hits. They make something extremely difficult look easy.
There are two plays diagrammed below that will show you ways quarterbacks can stay clean. One is by design, and the other is by skill.
In this first play you'll see a play-action pass from the New England Patriots. When you're playing against the Houston Texans, there's a certain defensive player you're going to worry about on every play. Obviously we're talking about J.J. Watt.
The Patriots moving Brady around the pocket by faking the stretch run might not get Brady completely out of the pocket, but it does make him more than a stationary target back there for pass-rushers like Watt to set their sights on. Running the play action here slows down that pass rush and allows Brady a chance to move around a bit.
The offensive line all slanting to the right gets the defense all flowing the same direction. It even gets the backside contain, in this case the outside linebacker who's highlighted, running straight down the line of scrimmage. Watt gets completely washed out of the play.
The only chance the Texans had for pressure on this play was No. 98 Connor Barwin. The Patriots had their center peel back around after flowing to the right and immediately set his sights on that outside linebacker. You can also see the linebackers both planting off their right foot to gain depth in their coverage drops after biting on the run fake.
This play gives Brady just enough time to find a wide open Brandon Lloyd for the touchdown. This was a great play designed to neutralize a fierce pass rush and give Brady an opportunity to get the ball down the field. He did it without having to stand stationary waiting for the play to develop, and that benefited the Patriots on this play.
The next play comes from Manning and the Denver Broncos. Manning's ability to communicate and alter plays at the line of scrimmage has been well-documented.
For all of the credit that Manning gets for the plays he makes with his arm, he's still not getting enough credit for how well he moves his feet. This next play against the San Diego Chargers will show a little bit of everything with Manning.
Manning has the Broncos in the red zone, and you'll see the outside receiver, Eric Decker in this case, run a square-in route. The slot receiver is tight end Jacob Tamme, and he'll run a deep out-route.
Right before the snap, Manning gives the running back a confirmation of who he is supposed to block on the play.
The back crosses Manning's face and picks up the backer in a decent-sized collision. You can see the excellent walls the Broncos offensive line created. When Manning is ready to deliver the pass, the throwing lane is blocked by Chargers defensive lineman, No. 91 Kendall Reyes.
Manning knows he has protection to his left, and he slides that way while keeping his eyes down the field.
Just as the Chargers collapse the pocket on Manning, he's able to get the ball out to Decker, who takes it in for the touchdown.
This play from Manning was just as much about his ability to move his feet around the pocket as it was anything else. He has an elite ability to constantly manipulate the pocket by keeping his feet moving throughout the play while avoiding pressure. That ability to "feel" the pressure without turning his eyes or attention to it is what separates him from other quarterbacks.
It also keeps him from getting hit, and as shown the chart above, Manning didn't get hit very often. The Broncos led the league with just 46 hits on Manning. That's a far different number then Aaron Rodgers saw with the Green Bay Packers last season. Rodgers was hit 85 times in 2012.
Whether it's by play design like we saw with Tom Brady and the Patriots or just pure natural talent like we saw with Manning and the Broncos, there are several ways to help keep your quarterback off the ground and healthy.
While it might not translate uniformly across the board to wins right now, there's always a better chance to win if your starting quarterback stays on the field and is healthy.
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