The concussion that Browns quarterback Colt McCoy apparently suffered on Thursday night came after Steelers linebacker James Harrison lowered the crown of his helmet into McCoy’s face.
Based on his history of fines for illegal hits, Harrison could be facing a six-figure fine or a suspension for his most recent transgression.
But Harrison believes it was a clean play. “From what I understand, once the quarterback leaves the pocket, he’s considered a runner,” Harrison said after the game, according to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “All the defenseless[ness] and liberties that a quarterback has in the pocket are gone and you can tackle him just as he’s a running back. The hit wasn’t late, so I really don’t understand why it was called.”
Technically, Harrison’s understanding is wrong. When the quarterback leaves the pocket, he loses the protection against low hits, and the one-step rule for roughing the passer evaporates. But all other protections apply, including the prohibition against blows to the head.
Harrison could still escape a nasty letter from the league office. The official rule book contains at Rule 12, Section 2, Article 13(8) a phrase that possibly creates a loophole for a helmet-to-helmet hit. If the quarterback is “attempting to advance the ball as a runner,” all protections for the passer apparently go away.
On the play in question, McCoy was moving toward the line of scrimmage as a runner, before flipping the ball while on the move to Montario Hardesty in a maneuver that looked almost like an option play, with a slightly forward pass in lieu of a lateral getting the ball from the quarterback to the tailback.
Harrison will claim that he believed McCoy was attempting to advance the ball as a runner. And that raises an interesting question regarding the ability of quarterbacks to bait defensive players into illegal hits.
The problem is that Harrison may not be the ideal poster child for this specific exception. Given his history and the ferocity of the hit he applied to McCoy, the league may decide that the evidence of the attempt to advance the ball as a runner must be clear, and that if the quarterback actually throws the ball he necessarily wasn’t attempting to advance the ball as a runner.
The league office will likely caucus on this issue early next week, with Harrison finding out on Tuesday whether and to what extent he’ll be punished. He’ll then have the right to appeal to Art Shell or Ted Cottrell.
Regardless of how it turns out, here’s hoping that the league provides a clear interpretation of the relevant rule, so that players in the future will know when a quarterback is fair game for a blow to the head, and when he isn’t.