" Tom Brady, if you're listening: Take off the skirt and put on some slacks. Toughen up."
-- Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, on NBC's "Football Night in America"
"Right now, the NFL has more good quarterbacks than ever before. There are a lot of premier quarterbacks from top to bottom in this league. One of the reasons is because the rules are protecting them. It is very important to keep it that way. They have to do that. Without those guys, the league is simply not the same."
-- Steve Mariucci, former coach of the 49ers and Lions, on the NFL Network's "GameDay Final"
Before you go all macho and retro and start ranting about how football's a contact sport, and how, back in the day, quarterbacks used to be tougher, and that they shouldn't be treated any differently than any other player, think about this:
After you've shelled out 100-plus bucks for a ticket and another 50 to park, after you've put on your tough-guy Steve Grogan jersey number 14 and then spent a family's weekly food budget at the concession stands, who do you want to see playing quarterback for the Patriots - Tom Brady or Brian Hoyer?
If you're in Indianapolis, do you want to see Peyton Manning, or Jim Sorgi?
Drew Brees or Mark Brunell in New Orleans? Philip Rivers or Billy Volek in San Diego? Eli Manning or David Carr playing for the Giants?
You see where I'm coming from?
Mariucci, as Bill Parcells likes to say, "gets it."
There are too many NFL teams and not enough good quarterbacks. Fans don't want to pay top dollar to see second-stringers. It's in the best interests of the league to keep its stars on the field, rather than have them going into surgery.
And it's not as if the NFL is saying defensive players can't hit the quarterback. It's simply saying the quarterback can't be hit in the head, or below the knees.
Harrison was merely getting in a friendly dig at his buddy Brady, but Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis couldn't have been more serious when he fumed, after the Ravens twice were penalized for unnecessary roughness for hitting Brady -- once high, once low - last Sunday:
"Without totally going off the wall here, it's embarrassing to the game. Brady is good enough to make his own plays. Let him make the play. When you have two great teams that are going at it, let them go at it. Both of (the Patriots') touchdown drives had personal fouls that kept the drives alive. Did that win or lose the game? No, but it got them 14 points."
The first of the penalties that incited Lewis occurred on the Patriots' second possession, when tackle Haloti Ngata drew a flag for hitting Brady's helmet. Brady had just thrown an incompletion on third down at the Baltimore 37. The penalty resulted in a first down for New England at the 22, and the Patriots went on to score on Brady's one-yard sneak.
The second penalty for hitting Brady was in the second quarter, when outside linebacker Terrell Suggs went for Brady's knees after he'd released the ball. Brady -- who missed virtually all of last season after a similar low blow resulted in torn ligaments in his left knee -- immediately turned to an official and signaled as if to throw a flag, which immediately followed.
"They deserved to get flagged," a smiling Brady said later. "We're holding the ball, we're unprotected, just sitting there defenseless, so they've got to stay away from me."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, like Lewis, made no secret of the fact that he felt the officials were overly protective of Brady.
But the fact is that Brady, like every other quarterback in the league, still gets hit. He was leveled from behind by Suggs in the third quarter and fumbled the ball, which the Ravens recovered in the end zone for a touchdown that made the score 17-14.
Twice in the preseason, Brady was rocked by bone-rattling sacks. After the Bengals' Robert Geathers leveled him, the Redskins' 350-pound all-pro lineman, Albert Haynesworth, drilled Brady from behind and landed squarely on top of him. Brady didn't play the rest of the game. Nor did he play in the Pats' final preseason game, causing concerns that he might have injured his shoulder.
Clearly, it's OK to hit the quarterback and hit him hard.
What the NFL has made equally clear is that quarterbacks can't be hit in the head, or below the knees - an edict that is both reasonable and sensible. Defenders shouldn't be allowed to go head hunting, or to take a QB down by hitting him at the knees while he's in a vulnerable, passing position.
New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork was fined $12,500 after the season opener in 2007 when he hit Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman low, sending him out with an injured knee. Wilfork was flagged for a similar offense against the Bills this year.
"We don't make the rules," said Brady, "we just play by them. Whatever they call, they call. I think we were on the fortunate end of a few of them (against the Ravens). Other times, we haven't been. Like I've said, in the end, they probably all even out."
But that doesn't stop Brady from trying to help out the officials, as he did last Sunday when Suggs hit him below the knees.
"I want the penalty call," Brady said. "I want 15 yards. I don't care whether they hit me or not, that's an advantage for our offense."
Then, flashing his charismatic cover-boy smile, he added: "I go hug the ref before the game, ask about his kids and stuff like that. I'm trying to get him on our side."