Players on the Packers have been talking about hitting 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is not happy about that. But the NFL has some bad news for Harbaugh: Taking hits comes with the territory of being a read-option quarterback.
In an officiating video distributed to the media, NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino says that read-option quarterbacks can be hit like runners, even if they don’t have the ball. If a quarterback who handed off or pitched the ball is still carrying out a fake in a running posture, he can be tackled the same way he would be if he still had the ball.
“He is still treated as a runner until he is clearly out of the play,” Blandino said. “The quarterback makes the pitch, he’s still a runner — he can be hit like a runner until he’s clearly out of the play.”
Blandino noted that if the offense is running a play designed to keep the defense guessing about who’s getting the ball, it’s only fair for the defense to be allowed to tackle both players who might have the ball.
“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.
For all the talk of the league office protecting defenseless quarterbacks, Blandino made clear that quarterbacks are only considered defenseless in certain situations, and running the read option is not one of those situations.
“The basic concept is, the quarterback position is not defenseless throughout the down. It’s the posture he presents that will dictate his protections,” Blandino said.
Still, that doesn’t mean defenders get unlimited free shots on quarterbacks on all read-option plays. If it’s obvious that the quarterback doesn’t have the ball anymore, he can’t get hit: The rules say that if a defender drills a quarterback after he has handed off or pitched the ball and isn’t taking a running posture anymore, it’s unnecessary roughness.
“If the quarterback is out of the pocket, he’s clearly out of the play, he cannot be unnecessarily contacted,” Blandino said.
The officials will have a tough job determining where the line is drawn between playing tough, physical defense on read-option quarterbacks, and unnecessarily contacting a quarterback who doesn’t have the ball anymore. It’s probably safe to say that the Packers and the 49ers won’t agree about where that line should be drawn on Sunday.