EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings want Christian Ponder to be cautious when he carries the ball.
By diving head first.
Most NFL quarterbacks are taught to avoid contact and end the play as safely as possible by sliding feet first. There’s a rule for that, after all. President Barack Obama, at an event last month with Philadelphia’s Nnamdi Asomugha, even had some advice for the league’s most prominent scrambler, telling Asomugha to remind teammate Michael Vick to slide.
But Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has provided video evidence for Ponder of his belief that going down head first is actually less of an injury risk.
The subject came up when Ponder scrambled around right end in a game last week, diving head first right in front of the goal line on third-and-2 at the 4 to get a first down. He heard plenty of questions about the tactic, particularly because this is the preseason.
“People are tweeting at me, ‘Like, dude, slide feet first. What are you doing?”’ Ponder said. “But it’s a planned deal.”
Musgrave found decades worth of film to make his case. His former teammate in Denver, John Elway, was a headfirst diver, most famously when he leaped forward in the post-1997 Super Bowl and spun around like a helicopter after the hit for a key first down.
Steve Pelluer was knocked out of a game with Dallas in 1988 at Chicago when he slid at the last second at the end of a run. Mike Singletary delivered a jarring hit high, and Maurice Douglass came in low.
Trent Green tried a hook slide in 2006 for Kansas City, but the shoulder of Cincinnati’s Robert Geathers crashed into Green hard enough to snap his helmet back. Green’s concussion was severe enough to send him to the hospital and sideline him for the next eight games.
Then last year, at the end of Ponder’s rookie season, he tried to slide awkwardly in the middle of the field and took a high hit from Washington’s London Fletcher. That caused a concussion, forcing him out of the game.
“When it is wide open, feet-first is fine,” Musgrave said. “When the defenders are converging, we just need to get down.”
The theory is that diving head first gets one to the ground more quickly and gives a defensive player a smaller area to aim at.
“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,” Musgrave said.
Others around the league aren’t so sure about this, though.
Head-first dives can cause separated shoulders. The risk of fumbling increases. Also, such a move is not covered by the NFL rulebook.
In 1985, the league declared that a feet-first slide immediately ends a play and makes the ball dead. Defensive players are required to pull up and avoid unnecessary contact. A sliding quarterback is supposed to be treated the same as a runner who has already been downed.
“I think the chance of injury is less if you slide,” Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “And most of the time you’re sliding into an open area. So I would rather have the guy slide at this point than dive. You can land on the ball and hurt your wrist, any of that stuff.”
The Jets were so anxious about Mark Sanchez not sliding as a rookie in 2009 — his past baseball experience had molded in him a headfirst mentality — that they brought in a famous New Yorker to teach him some techniques.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi showed Sanchez how to hook his right leg correctly while protecting the ball and letting his lower body absorb the blow of the inevitable hit. Sanchez hurt his left knee earlier that year when he was tackled at the end of a scramble.
“It’s something that you need to learn at this level. Once you get the first down or as many yards as you need, just protect yourself and protect the ball and give yourself a chance to play,” Sanchez said then.
The loophole in the feet-first rule, of course, is the timing.
Green’s slide came late enough that no foul or fine was issued to Geathers, who also was blocked in the back by one of Green’s teammates, causing him to lose some control of his body.
“I know that I have a target on my back and I’m going to take as many licks as possible, but I’m not too worried about it,” Ponder said. “I think you almost try to give them your back, more so than your helmet. I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll get popped pretty good at one point.”
Yes, it’s a dangerous calling no matter how it’s done. Vick is already hurt, with rib and thumb issues, and it’s not even September. His running style has bordered on reckless throughout his career, as effective as it’s been.
“Get the first down, go down,” Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers said. “I would have one less concussion if I’d remembered that one fact.”
And don’t get Musgrave wrong, either. Diving, sliding, whatever works to avoid an injury.
“It’s a personal preference. What’s really important when a quarterback runs is getting down in a timely manner as those defenders converge. You can maximize and squeeze out the last possible yard but at the same time maintain your health so you can line up for the next play,” Musgrave said.
On an NFL field, of course, injuries can happen anywhere at any time. Musgrave, who backed up Elway for two seasons, joked this week about the comfort zone he found during his playing days.
“It was hard to do a lot of diving from the sidelines. I was over there in a very safe spot,” Musgrave said. “In those preseason games at the end, I always tried to. I wanted to emulate the way that John Elway would run it. It was always easy to keep my pads down. I always wanted a lot of forward lean, and it just kind of turned out to be the tree timbering down.”