With more quarterbacks opting to run with the ball, either horizontally or vertically or both, the NFL has given its teams a reminder as to the rules that apply when quarterbacks aren’t in the pocket.
The biggest misconception for most fans (and some players) comes when the quarterback leaves the pocket but stays behind the line of scrimmage. He loses the protection of the “one-step” rule and the Brady rule regarding hits at or below the knee. The quarterback otherwise remains protected against forcible hits to the head and neck area and hits with the helmet to any part of the quarterback’s body. (This makes the failure to flag Texans defensive end J.J. Watt for removing the helmet of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers even more confusing.)
Once the quarterback clearly becomes a runner, all protections evaporate — except the ordinary (and inherently subjective) rule against unnecessary roughness, including the protection that applies when any runner slides feet first.
Of course, it’s often hard to know when a quarterback clearly becomes a runner. Last year, Steelers linebacker James Harrison thought Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was a runner, and then McCoy threw the ball just before Harrison delivered a wicked helmet-to-helmet hit to McCoy. Harrison was suspended for one game.
Thus, the practical rule seems to be that, if the quarterback actually throws the ball, he’s not clearly a runner, even if he seemed to be one.
When it comes to running the option or handing the ball off in a read-option look and then pretending to run without the ball as a fake, there are no special protections. Likewise, no special protections apply if the quarterback running an option play pitches the ball to another runner.
Somewhere, the replacement officials are glad they don’t have to keep all this stuff straight anymore.