DENVER — It’s safe to say all NFL teams will be reevaluating their attitudes on quarterback sneaks this week.
It’s surprising there aren’t more injuries like the one Patrick Mahomes suffered on Thursday night. Mahomes sneaked forward on fourth-and-1 against the Denver Broncos. Mahomes got the first down, and in the pile of bodies he suffered a dislocated kneecap.
The Chiefs kept possession and lost the MVP of the league for the rest of the game, and perhaps longer. The Chiefs will have a definitive answer on Mahomes’ status when more tests are done.
There were no shortage of people on social media who were expressing outrage over Chiefs coach Andy Reid calling for the face of the franchise — and arguably the entire NFL — to burrow under multiple 300-pound men to gain a yard. Mahomes entered the game battling an ankle injury that has limited his mobility for several weeks.
Reid, who said the sneak was a called play and not an audible, said he had no regrets.
“Not too many people get hurt on sneaks,” Reid said after the Chiefs’ 30-6 victory. “It’s a freak thing. It happens.”
That may be the fair way to look at it, but it won’t ease the minds of Chiefs fans and fantasy players who watched as Mahomes had his kneecap put back into place on the field.
Are quarterback sneaks unsafe?
There aren’t many documented injuries on QB sneaks. But even a slight risk of having your most important player get hurt in a pile is why some teams don’t run them despite a very high success rate. Between 2007-2017 quarterback sneaks inside the 20-yard lines converted at an 87.5 percent rate, according to Pro Football Focus. Running back carries converted just 68.7 percent of the time. Analytically inclined analysts have complained for years that teams don’t use the sneak enough.
It’s hard to get a coach to pass on any play that succeeds more than 85 percent of the time, but there’s a reason teams are hesitant. They might be more wary after what happened to Mahomes.
Pittsburgh Steelers fans have criticized offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner for not calling more sneaks. Earlier this season, he said it’s because he doesn’t want to expose his quarterback to an injury.
“I wouldn’t mind in certain situations, but when it’s obvious situations — fourth-and-1, third-and-1 — it really isn’t something I’m interested in doing,” Fichtner said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I value our quarterback. There’s a lot of stuff going on in those piles. Just the truth be known, if we can’t hand it to one of our backs and we can’t block them, then we don’t deserve to win that down.”
In the regular-season finale of the 2016 season, Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage suffered a concussion on a sneak. He couldn’t start a wild-card game against the Oakland Raiders the following week, and Brock Osweiler took his place.
“I’m not regretful of that play-call at all,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said then, according to the CBS affiliate in Houston. “I just feel bad for [Savage] that it happened, but I think in the end you’re out there to play football, it’s a contact sport, injuries happen. I feel terrible about it but I’m not regretful about it.”
New England’s Tom Brady has been successful many times on sneaks, and has not suffered a significant injury on one.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said earlier this month, according to the team’s transcripts. “The first thing I’ve always said to any quarterback that is going to try it is, ‘You have to be willing to do it.’ There’s an inherent courage and willingness to send your body into a bunch of 300-plus pound men and push and not go to the ground and not lose the ball and have an awareness of where you’re at and also find the sweet spot, which he does a great job of.”
‘It was a good call’
Right after what might become the second-most famous quarterback sneak behind Bart Starr in the “Ice Bowl,” Chiefs players nervously waved for the athletic trainers to come out for Mahomes. Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who has a medical degree, said Mahomes was on the ground saying, “It’s out, it’s out,” and then they saw what he was talking about.
“I think everybody could have known something was wrong,” Duvernay-Tardif said in the locker room.
There are no safe plays in the NFL. Every one has an element of danger. There is added risk for the quarterback when he has to sneak forward in a pile of large men for a first down, but that’s football.
“It’s bad luck. It happens,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “I haven’t seen what happened exactly. It’s not a play we’ve been calling that often in that situation, but there was a gap open and it was a good call. It was just bad luck.”
Nobody wants Mahomes hurt, of course, but players understand that any play can result in an injury. And, in a blowout victory against the Broncos, it wasn’t lost on Duvernay-Tardif that the sneak worked.
“At the end of the day, we converted,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “It was a good call.”
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