PHILADELPHIA -- If Chip Kelly, Pete Carroll and other NFL coaches want to run zone-read plays, their quarterbacks are fair game -- even when they don't have the ball.
The league's competition committee has made it clear quarterbacks won't get special protection until they establish a passing posture. The rules aren't changing this year despite concerns that arose after Terrell Suggs was penalized for tackling Sam Bradford's knees on a handoff in a Ravens-Eagles game last Saturday.
Dean Blandino, the league's vice president of officiating, declared Suggs' hit was legal because Bradford was considered a runner until he clearly didn't have the football or positioned himself to pass.
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On a zone-read play, the quarterback sticks the ball in a running back's stomach and either gives it to him or pulls it back and runs depending on the defense's reaction. Suggs was assigned the quarterback on the play, so he ignored ball carrier Darren Sproles and went straight for Bradford.
Kelly argued it was a simple handoff and shouldn't have been treated like an option play because Bradford -- playing in his first game after a knee injury last season -- didn't try to carry out a fake.
The problem is that defensive players and referees cannot always identify the difference between a zone-read play and a handoff.
''Not every shotgun run is a zone-read play,'' Kelly said. ''We don't run as much zone-read as everybody thinks we do.''
Bradford was not injured on the Suggs hit. He says there is a ''gray area'' when it comes to defining a zone-read play.
''We have a lot of plays in our offense where there are absolutely no reads for us, it's an automatic give,'' he said. ''I think the league is probably just going have to clarify what a zone-read is.''
But clarification isn't so easy.
''We have had discussions about these types of plays in our meetings over the past couple years as the zone-read has become more prevalent,'' said New York Giants co-owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee, which is in charge of rule changes. ''As long as the quarterback is a threat as a runner with these plays, I don't know how you make the distinction between him being a runner or passer. And how is a defender supposed to distinguish between a zone-read and a regular handoff from the shotgun?''
Mike Pereira, who held Blandino's job before becoming a rules analyst at Fox Sports, doesn't get all the confusion.
''I don't think the refs are in a tough spot,'' he said. ''(The quarterback) is either in a passing posture or he is not.''
Carroll is monitoring the situation closely because the Seattle Seahawks run plenty of option plays with Russell Wilson.
''You can force this thing about they're a runner, when they don't have the ball in their hands, and the ball is already handed off and gone, guys need to make good decisions hopefully,'' Carroll said. ''So we'll be very much a part of that discussion if things continue like it's going, because it's not right.''
Pocket passers such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning aren't susceptible to the same hits as quarterbacks that run a lot of option plays, including Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins and rookie Marcus Mariota of the Titans.
''As a quarterback, you hate to see another guy get a shot taken at his knees like that literally just after he handed the ball off,'' Tannehill said. ''You can see a guy like Peyton Manning doing the exact same handoff and no one is taking a shot at his knees.''
Mariota ran plenty of zone-read plays at Oregon and understands that defensive players are in a tough spot.
''There are certain plays where it does look like a zone-read option, but it's not a zone read,'' he said. ''That just kind of depends on your scheme. That's going to be up to the coaches to decide how much we use it. But I can see where, as a defensive player, it's tough.''
Even defensive players on the Eagles agree that consistently hitting quarterbacks who run zone-read options is the main way to prevent teams from using that play.
''As a defender, my way of scaring you out of that run concept is hit your quarterback,'' Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins said. ''If I'm playing the Patriots, everybody knows that Tom Brady's not running the zone-read. So it'll get called different than an offense where 50 percent of our snaps are zone-read. So I think there's a little bit of discretion in there.''