Amid nervousness about the brazen comments made by Green Bay Packers defenders about hitting 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on read-option plays, Harbaugh contacted the league office to receive clarification on the legalities of such hits.
The league provided an answer Thursday. In a video distributed to coaches and media members, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino explains that read-option quarterbacks are treated as runners by referees—thus, not subject to league-mandated protections enacted in recent years.
“The quarterback and the running back, they’re both treated as runners. We don’t know who has the football, we don’t know who’s going to take it, so both players are treated as runners,” Blandino said.
You'll be shocked to know that wasn't exactly the clarification Harbaugh was hoping for. But while the remaining coaches whose offenses heavily use the read-option have kept their comments to a minimum, Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback himself, scorched the earth with criticism.
Harbaugh would continue on for about five minutes, using his Friday press conference as a pulpit. He claimed the league is leaving quarterbacks susceptible to unnecessary hits to the head and knees, areas that have been targets for years on ball-carries but rendered no-fly zones on quarterbacks in recent years.
"By definition, a fake is a deception," Harbaugh said. "It is a deception, deceptive maneuver. Now are they opened up to being hit in the head and the knees, treated like a running back? It seems like they would have more of an appetite to look at that, and they've said they don't have an appetite to look at it any further."
As one might expect, this is an issue that polarizes fans, analysts and players alike. Some bemoan how the NFL has attempted to tone down hits in recent years. They look at the league's protection of quarterbacks as being overzealous and find the ruling a refreshing change of course after years of quote-unquote babying of the players.
Others, like legendary head coach and broadcaster John Madden, have been advocates for even more protection for the game's most important position.
Since none of us exactly have sway on the matter—well, probably except for Madden—it doesn't really matter which side of the coin you or I fall on.
But Harbaugh's comments highlight, perhaps, the unalienable truth of this situation: There may be no perfect solution for the NFL when it comes to policing quarterback hits. It's one of the hottest topics behind closed doors in the league office for years now, and the proliferation of the read-option has opened a box most involved would prefer shut.
The recent emphasis on protecting quote-unquote pocketed quarterbacks around the league is both understandable and perhaps overdue. Quarterbacks, much like punters and kickers, place themselves in vulnerable situations where their bodies are compromised.
They're in relatively stationary positions in the pocket, where they hold the ball upright and used to serve essentially as a human pinata. Protecting them only makes sense from a practical standpoint.
Keeping the quarterback, generally the team's most important and most highly publicized player, upright also helps the league in, perhaps, the most important way: monetarily.
Some fans say they'd like to see Peyton Manning get knocked around a bit. Exactly how much did those fans enjoy watching the 2011 Indianapolis Colts?
Spoiler: The league didn't love it either. Those Colts, who played the entire season, 1-15, without Manning, were scheduled for five prime-time games before the severity of the future Hall of Famer's neck injury became clear.
Indianapolis lost its four national spotlight games by 68 points, including a 62-7 embarrassment at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. (It was mercifully flexed out Week 13 against the New England Patriots.)
In case you haven't heard, the NFL makes quite a bit of coin from its nationally televised schedule. So the league has a vested interest in avoiding such catastrophes. As it should.
The league's rulebook, as such, has continued affording heightened protection to quarterbacks, while it also worked to become increasingly straightforward with its policing. Defenders are prohibited from "forcibly" contacting a quarterback's head or neck area with any part of their body, including their helmet—a rule that pretty much spans the entire sport at this point.
A rushing defender is also not allowed to hit a quarterback at his knee or below when the quarterback has one or both feet on the ground, unless he's unintentionally blocked there and has no other recourse.
(Note: The rule protecting shots to the knees is unofficially called the "Tom Brady Rule." Brady was injured when then-Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard lunged at his knees, causing a complete ACL tear.)
Players found in violation are given 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalties and are subject to further discipline depending on past history and severity.
This seems straightforward, yes?
Well, if you've watched, say, eight minutes of your typical NFL game, it's clear, the policing of those rules is inconsistent at best.
Last season, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas was fined $15,000 for a hit on Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Thomas, who was blitzing on the play, jumped in an attempt to swat Tannehill's pass when it became clear he wouldn't get there in time for the sack.
Even though the hit seemed clean on the field and Thomas even tried stopping holding back, his momentum carried into Tannehill, hitting him in the head.
The play negated an interception and instantly became the source of division around the league. If a player is already in the air, attempts his best to avoid contact and barely touches the quarterback, is that really the intent of the rule?
The NFL thought so.
But there have been countless more blatant hits that have gone the other direction. Which was, I think in part, the point Harbaugh was trying to make. By creating different rules for quarterbacks running the read-option than ones in the pocket, the NFL is allowing officials to deem when a player is "in" versus "out" of the play.
In essence, it's muddying up the thought process for one of its most inconsistently applied edicts.
"I feel like you give a license now to players to hit quarterbacks at the knee or in the head, and it just seems to be a flip-flop of what the league's trying to get accomplished," Harbaugh said (h/t CBS Sports' John Breech).
Countless think pieces have looked deep into the read-option and what it means for the NFL's present and future. Some have suggested a just-hit-the-quarterback method to stop the madness. If a coach sees his most important player getting beat up like the government mule, the theory goes he'll think twice about continuing to call the plays.
If not, maybe said quarterback gets hurt. Whoopsie.
It's a sinister way of thinking, but defensive coordinators were so confounded by the read-option last season, jobs could be on the line.
After years upon years of getting hamstrung by league edicts on how you're supposed to play the game, though, the defense finally "won" one. They'll get to employ the just-hit-the-quarterback edict if they so choose, and may well fundamentally alter the way teams use the read-option. We may see teams beginning to strike it from their playbook.
Just know that if coaches continue using read-options going forward, the NFL finds itself toeing a precarious line. We'll just have to see how it all works out.
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