by howard fendrich ap pro football writer
Thanks to a broken collarbone on a run-of-the-mill sack, the Green Bay Packers are without Aaron Rodgers. Their rivals in the NFC North, the Chicago Bears, are without Jay Cutler thanks to a bum leg, which also wasn't the result of some sort of illegal hit.
Game after game, NFL quarterbacks get sacked, get hurt — and miss starts. Of the 15 games on this week's schedule, nine — 60 percent — feature at least one team that has been forced to change its quarterback because of injury this season.
One of the two teams with a bye, St. Louis, lost its No. 1 guy, 2010 top overall draft pick Sam Bradford, for the season. Bradford, who tore a ligament in his left knee last month, is one of nine quarterbacks on injured reserve in 2013, the second most through 10 weeks in any of the past 15 seasons, according to STATS.
Amid those regular reminders of the dangers facing players at the sport's marquee position, the league's competition committee will take a look this offseason at whether to expand rules that protect the QB, NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino said Thursday.
"Should he always get protection from low hits or head hits, regardless of the posture he's presenting?" Blandino said in a telephone interview. "Part of the conversation will be: Should that protection be expanded to all times when the quarterback has the ball in the pocket?"
The committee will review position-by-position injury data and go over video from games, a regular process between seasons.
"Currently the quarterback is as protected now as he's ever been," Blandino said, "but I think that's been the case for eight or nine years."
A year ago, only one QB had gone on IR by this point in the season. Indeed, 2012 was about as healthy as it gets for quarterbacks: 20 of 32 NFL teams started the same one in every game, the highest percentage for a full, non-strike season since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. With nearly half of this season still to play, the number of teams able to rely on one starter at that key spot already is down to 20.
"If you don't have someone who can be productive at that position, you're not going to win many games. You need to keep your quarterback healthy, because on most teams, there's a huge drop-off from the starter to the backup. It's a watered-down position, because there's not a lot of great guys after the top 15 or so," Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. "When you get a good guy, you want to keep him healthy."
Moon sees quite a difference in the way the position is safeguarded nowadays, compared with when he was in the NFL from 1984-2000.
"No question, I wish we were protected better. ... It's a lot safer, because some of the hits we took back in the day — they could still drive us into the turf when they hit us. Those really were painful. Didn't always cause an injury, but made you a little more antsy about taking hits. The guys these days don't really have to put up with it," Moon said. "I don't think there's much more you can do. It's as good as it's going to get, unless you put flags on them."
He pointed to today's spread offenses, with empty backfields and fewer players hanging back to help in pass protection, as a major reason games are averaging 2.65 sacks, a half-sack more per game than in 2010, for example. That's on pace for the highest rate since the 2.67 in 1986.
It probably is not a coincidence that the seven teams with sole possession of first place in their division entering Thursday started the same guy behind center every week: New England (Tom Brady), Indianapolis (Andrew Luck), Cincinnati (Andy Dalton), Kansas City (Alex Smith), New Orleans (Drew Brees), Detroit (Matthew Stafford) and Seattle (Russell Wilson). So has Denver (Peyton Manning), which at 8-1 has the league's second-best record but is in second place in the AFC West behind unbeaten Kansas City entering their showdown Sunday night.
Already using three QBs are Buffalo, Cleveland and Green Bay, which put Rodgers' backup, Seneca Wallace, on IR, after he oh-so-briefly took over the job. The Packers now have Scott Tolzien, until recently a practice squad member, calling signals against the Giants on Sunday.
The Broncos got a scare last weekend, when Manning limped around after a low hit late in a victory against San Diego. After he skipped practice Wednesday while getting treatment on his sore right ankle, Manning was asked about the slew of QB health issues around the league.
"I don't like talking about it. I don't know what the trends are at other places, but I never like to see a quarterback get injured, I will say that," said the four-time NFL MVP, who was at practice Thursday. "Quarterbacks are a unique fraternity. We kind of pull for one another. Maybe not when you're playing against them that day. Cutler's been injured. I know Rodgers was out. As a quarterback, you don't like to see those guys get injured. I hope they'll be back out there as soon as they can."
So, of course, do their teams.
AP National Writer Eddie Pells in Englewood, Colo., and AP Sports Writer Genaro C. Armas in Green Bay, Wis., contributed to this report.
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