CINCINNATI – Carson Palmer feels safe, which is dangerous for the rest of the NFL.
Granted, Palmer isn't the only quarterback experiencing such a comfort zone these days. NFL owners have gone to seemingly absurd lengths to protect their greatest assets by toughening the roughing-the-passer rule. Now, as the league heads into the stretch drive of the regular season, there's an intriguing question playing out: Will the rules protecting quarterbacks turn the playoffs from being defense-dominated to more offense-oriented? The recent spate of seemingly ticky-tack roughing penalties suggests that might be the case.
Of course, some people might argue that the Cincinnati Bengals' 13-7 victory over Baltimore on Thursday night was an example of typical defensive playoff football. To some extent, that's true.
But when you're talking about Cincinnati, which improved to 7-5 and enhanced its standing for a playoff spot, the discussion ultimately comes back to offense. Palmer set the tone in this game with two early drives that moved inside the Baltimore 10-yard line before ending in field goals. He then sealed the victory with a 40-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the fourth quarter.
If the Bengals are going to do anything of substance in the postseason, it's going to be on the strength of the offense putting its suspect defense in a better position to succeed. Early leads are a must and as the stunning loss to top contender San Diego three weeks ago showed (in which the Bengals had a 21-point halftime lead), no lead is big enough.
To that extent, this year couldn't have created a better environment for quarterbacks like Palmer. The tougher rule and firm interpretation on roughing has made the pocket a far less fearful place.
"Anything they do to protect the quarterback makes me feel that much better," said Palmer, whose playoffs ended prematurely last season when he suffered knee ligament damage after a low hit in the wild-card round against Pittsburgh. "I think the rule on [not touching a quarterback anywhere on the helmet] is great. Look at Steve Young and Troy Aikman. Their careers ended early because of concussions. They got hit in the head a lot. If you're doing something to reduce that, I think that's great."
By contrast, defensive players aren't particularly happy, including some of Palmer's teammates.
"If they're going to make the rules like this, they might as well just make it basketball," said Bengals defensive end Justin Smith, who was called for a critical roughing penalty in a last-second loss to Tampa Bay in Week 6.
In the offseason, the NFL adopted a rule in which the defensive player can't make contact with a quarterback at or below the knee (unless blocked into the quarterback by an offensive player). In addition, the league told officials to more strictly enforce the rule barring a defender making any contact with a quarterback's helmet, even if accidental or seemingly of minor consequence.
What you essentially have now is a strike zone in football. The quarterback can really be hit only above the knees and to the top of the shoulders, about the same size as a baseball strike zone.
"We've taken steps to improve safety for all the players, but there's no question the quarterbacks are a really valuable asset to a team, sometimes even the franchise," NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira said. "He's the guy who's in the position where he's most vulnerable as he's getting set to pass, looking down field. The owners are exceptionally aware of that and clearly the point is to protect them."
However, the enforcement of the rule has led to some seemingly absurd situations in recent weeks. On Monday, for instance, Green Bay defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins was called for roughing Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on a third-and-9 play early in the fourth quarter.
Jenkins hit Hasselbeck just as the quarterback released what turned out to be an incomplete pass. Jenkins put his arms up to deflect the pass but missed. As they followed through, both players fell and Jenkins' arms hit Hasselbeck on the shoulder, Pereira said. It clearly wasn't enough to hurt Hasselbeck, but the official thought Jenkins had hit Hasselbeck in the back of the head.
That made it clear enough to be a 15-yard penalty. Seattle scored its go-ahead touchdown on the drive in a 34-24 victory.
"And remember that the way the rule is written, if there's any doubt that it might be a dangerous hit, the official is supposed to call the penalty," Pereira said. "If you thought it's a hit to the head, even if there's doubt, you call it."
Or as Baltimore president Ozzie Newsome said: "Did he touch the helmet? You can't touch the quarterback in the head. It's automatic, no question."
Newsome, a Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end, is also part of the NFL's competition committee. He hears the arguments between football purists who angrily think the game is being turned into some elaborate 7-on-7 passing game and owners who worry about the bottom line.
Defense may be the backbone of championship teams, but quarterbacks and offense fill the seats.
"When we brought the rule in front of the owners, they made it clear they want the quarterback protected," Newsome said.
As a point of fact, roughing calls were down by two over the first 11 weeks of the season (72-70) from the same period last year. But defensive players argue that it's because they have been forced to become more passive.
For proof, they point to the game Sunday between the Titans and Giants, when Tennessee rallied from a 21-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 24-21. One of the critical plays came when the Titans faced a fourth-and-10 with 2:44 left. Rookie quarterback Vince Young dropped to pass and Giants rookie defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka broke free and was about to sack him.
Kiwanuka wrapped his arms around Young, seemingly long enough for the play to become a sack or determined to be "in the grasp." Instead of driving Young to the ground, Kiwanuka pulled off, only to see Young scamper for a first down as the officials didn't whistle the play dead.
"Man, I felt that kid's pain," Cincinnati veteran defensive lineman Bryan Robinson said. "I know exactly what he was thinking. You've got the guy wrapped up and you're thinking, 'Did they whistle it yet? Should I slam this guy down? Are they going to call a penalty on me?' "
And how about the fact that Young just happened to be the No. 3 overall pick in the draft and Tennessee's franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future?
"Oh yeah, that's in your mind, too," Robinson said.
Pereira counters that while the Kiwanuka play was unfortunate, there has been no change in the rate of sacks this season and there have been plenty of big hits on quarterbacks. For instance, Baltimore linebacker Bart Scott laid out Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last Sunday, one of nine sacks the Ravens had against the Steelers.
"We still have the big plays that defenders want," Pereira said. "Really, we've had a couple of high-profile plays come up and suddenly people think there's a trend."
About the only significant trend at the moment is how Palmer has played over the past four weeks, which covers Cincy's current three-game winning streak and the tough 49-41 loss to the Chargers in which he threw for 440 yards. Palmer has thrown 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions during that run.
"I'm back in a consistent run right now," Palmer said. "I think I'm pretty much completely comfortable now."
That's not something defenders want to hear, but it is music to owners.
"I know where the defensive guys are coming from," Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "But a lot of the time if you lose a quarterback, that's your season."