NFL’s slide rule was not made with someone as fast and elusive as Justin Fields in mind

Does the Bears quarterback have an unfair advantage?

SHARE NFL’s slide rule was not made with someone as fast and elusive as Justin Fields in mind
Bears quarterback Justin Fields sliding against the Vikings.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields slides against the Vikings during an Oct. 9 game in Minneapolis.

David Berding/Getty Images

Psst. Over here. Yeah, you. Let’s huddle in a corner so Bears fans can’t hear what I’m about to whisper.

At the risk of grievous bodily harm, I have a question to ask:

Do NFL rules protecting quarterbacks give the electrifying Justin Fields an unfair advantage when he’s running with the ball?

If this is the end for me, tell my wife and kids I love them.

I’ve described what Fields has done to opposing defenses this season as “almost unfair,’’ and the times I’ve written that, it has been in awe of his ability. His speed and ability to change direction have made a very bad Bears season more than palatable. Those skills have quickly made him the biggest sports star in Chicago.

Defenders haven’t been able to stop him in 2022, and the proof of that is in his 1,011 rushing yards, third-most by a quarterback in league history. He set the regular-season record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback with 178 against the Dolphins in Week 9. Much was made of the Bills “stopping’’ Fields last week, but come on. When he runs seven times for 11 yards, as he did against Buffalo, the only people stopping him are Bears coaches and Bears linemen.

League rules allow him to run and hide, almost literally. Defenders are not allowed to hit a ballcarrier (almost always a quarterback) who slides or “gives himself up” at the end of a run. Running backs can slide, too, but don’t. Quarterbacks aren’t defenseless when they’re running the ball, not like they sometimes are in the pocket. They can give a hit and take one, just like running backs can. They choose not to.

All season, I’ve pushed for the Bears to run Fields less to keep him out of harm’s way and to develop his passing. But the more I’ve watched, the more the slide rule seems against the spirit of the game.

In small doses, the rule makes sense. Most quarterbacks don’t want to run, and when they do, it’s usually on a scramble after a play breaks down. They slide feetfirst or headfirst and live to throw another day. Fields, on the other hand, takes off on designed runs or sometimes at the first hint of defensive pressure. This is when the show begins. He can make multiple defenders miss him. Opponents wonder when he’s going to slide, perhaps hesitate a tick and are made to look like fools. There’s no arguing that the threat of a penalty takes the teeth out of meat-eating linebackers and safeties.

When the NFL put the slide rule in effect for the 1985 season, was it trying to protect quarterbacks who sometimes run 15 times a game? No, it was trying to protect owners and their multimillion-dollar investments. It didn’t want a linebacker taking off John Elway’s head. The league would come to enjoy the show that Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson put on with their legs. They were good for business. And now comes Fields, who might end up going where Vick and Jackson couldn’t. He’s that talented.

I’m not proposing a rule change here, just pointing out the inequity when an anomaly like Fields comes along. We know that safeguarding the quarterback, especially the best ones, is one of the league’s major goals. No one wants to watch Nathan Peterman play because Fields got injured — no one except Peterman’s agent (and even then, you wonder).

The Bears’ goal is for this issue to be moot for Fields someday. If and when he gets a good offensive line, and if and when he gets a group of talented receivers, he won’t have to run as much. If he’s as good as the Bears say he is, he’ll be making his name as a quarterback who throws the ball the majority of the time.

For now, though, we get to watch Fields do his thing, even as some of us wonder if something seems off in a sport that’s supposed to involve hitting.

Two weeks ago, Eagles defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh hit Fields after the quarterback went to the ground. Suh wasn’t penalized. He should have been, and Fields complained about it later.

“It’s been too many times I’ve slid and been hit too late, and I don’t get the flags,” he said. “I’m going to be on the refs, looking for a call. When I think it’s a flag, I’m going to ask the ref. On Sunday, he said he didn’t think it was a foul. I’m just going to be begging for those calls and hope that I get one in the near future. I felt like I was down, and then I felt a 300-pound guy.”

I can’t emphasize this enough: I love the spectacle Fields puts on. He makes jaws drop, takes breath away and causes grown men to get teary-eyed.

But everybody else is playing tackle football, and quarterbacks are playing two-hand touch. Fields wants it both ways, and the rules say he can have it.

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