Even when QBs play it safe, they still risk injuries

Robert Griffin III faced a dilemma: head for the sideline, or for the end zone.

Griffin had already scrambled for a first down when he eschewed the safety of the sideline and kept on running. Griffin's dazzling 76-yard sprint in Washington's 38-26 win over Minnesota — the NFL's longest touchdown by a quarterback in 16 years — wouldn't have happened if he played it safe the way Redskins fans, his coaches and teammates prefer.

No one would've blamed the rookie if he simply went out of bounds. Griffin sustained a concussion just a week earlier when he took a hard hit to the head because he didn't run out or throw the ball away. Or slide. Or dive.

But getting hurt wasn't on RG3's mind late in the fourth quarter against the Vikings. Griffin saw an opening and knew he could outrun anyone on the field.

"The fans and my teammates don't want me to love the contact, so I don't love the contact," Griffin said. "I'm a competitive guy, and I do not mind getting hit. But whenever I can shy away from getting hit, I am the quarterback of this team and they need me out there every play. It's not a pride thing. I'm not a lesser man because I'm going to slide or run out of bounds. It's just a matter of being smart. I'll still be aggressive."

Griffin says all the right things, and he actually slid following a 7-yard run for a first down earlier in that game against Minnesota. Still, it's not easy to do in the heat of the moment.

It's much simpler for those watching to stress safety, to urge a player to go down, get out of bounds or get rid of the ball. It's much harder for a player to do it, though, especially when he's been programmed his entire life to go all-out and do whatever it takes to win.

"The actual slide part is easy; it's the mentality of sliding," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.

Fans, coaches and teammates have begged Michael Vick to slide for years. Heck, even President Barack Obama advised him to do it. Vick always agrees publicly and insists he's going to be cautious. Then nothing changes when he's on the field.

Even when he takes the safe route, Vick usually dives head first. It's part of his makeup, his competitive nature and desire to get that extra yard.

Diving is considered by most to be more dangerous than sliding feet first, though Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave argues the theory. Vick broke his ribs on a head-first dive two years ago and missed three games for Philadelphia. Griffin was awkwardly sliding with his head forward when he got hurt.

A feet-first slide is supposed to be safer because it immediately ends a play and makes the ball dead. Defensive players are required to pull up and avoid unnecessary contact.

Musgrave, however, provided video evidence to encourage Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder to dive head first because of his belief that it's actually less of an injury risk.

"When it is wide open, feet-first is fine," said Musgrave, who backed up notorious head-first diver John Elway in Denver. "When the defenders are converging, we just need to get down. We don't want to expose ourselves by being a periscope up — exposing all our vital organs. We want to give them a very minimal surface."

Veteran Matt Hasselbeck agrees with Musgrave, even though he isn't much of a scrambler anymore. Filling in for the injured Jake Locker last week, Hasselbeck got an important first down on a head-first dive in a 26-23 win over Pittsburgh.

"I think you can get hurt going feet first just as easily as head first, plus you get a little more yardage," Hasselbeck said. "When I was in Seattle, my quarterback coach Jim Zorn was encouraging me to slide feet first and we even did a slip-and-slide drill to try to get it down. I've tried it, but my preference would be head first."

While Hasselbeck is aware that head-first dives leave quarterbacks exposed to potential head injuries, he points out that going feet first could lead to hand or shoulder problems.

"Sometimes a guy will slide and leave his hand without the ball out, it gets fallen on and it's easy to hurt your shoulder that way, sublux your shoulder, which happens quite a bit," Hasselbeck said.

Those aren't quiet as serious as head injuries, though.

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan won two Super Bowls with the Broncos in 1997-98. He watched Elway dive head first continually and get up. Still, Shanahan would rather Griffin take the feet-first approach.

"When you go head first, you can take a shot, you're open game," Shanahan said. "So if you can slide, you protect yourself a little bit more. Some guys like to get that extra yard or two, but they'll take a couple of forearms to the head like Robert did last week. He slid forward and had a guy come right on top of his head, so hopefully we can slide and protect him a little bit better."

For some quarterbacks, sliding is a mechanical problem.

Mark Sanchez was so used to diving head first from his days playing baseball that the New York Jets brought in Yankees manager Joe Girardi to teach him sliding techniques in 2009.

When Vick played in Atlanta, the Falcons had former Braves manager Bobby Cox instruct him on sliding.

Hasselbeck mentioned the slip-and-slide drill the Seahawks practiced.

Redskins quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said he joked to Griffin about having someone from the Nationals come show him.

"I think it's just something you talk to him about, you show him on tape: 'Hey listen, there's nothing here, give yourself up — let's play the next play,'" LaFleur said.

Carolina's Cam Newton has run more than any QB in his two seasons in the league. He's fortunate to have avoided injury and made all of his starts.

"I think you have to find a safe zone whether it's sliding or going head first," Newton said. "You really want to get under the hit. As you can see, RG3 slid and still took a shot. You have to get under that hit and be able to get up that next play. He bounced back and had an excellent game, but it goes to show you whether you're in the pocket or scrambling for 2 yards, you always have to protect yourself. Whether you're sliding or diving you have to find that safe zone and make a decision that's very fast. If not, I think you will be reminded very quickly of how and why you should get down."


Sports Writers Joseph White in Washington, Steve Reed in Charlotte, N.C., Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and Dave Campbell in Eden Prairie, Minn., contributed to this story.


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