If Tryann Mathieu’s play officially announces the arrival of a new breed of safety, Lamarcus Joyner’s use in the NFL may become the next step in the evolution of the position.
In 1998, Peter King penned a feature for Sports Illustrated where he crowned the position of NFL quarterback as “The Toughest Job In Sports”. King delivered a convincing assessment that served as the media’s coronation of the quarterback as sports royalty. Anyone who watched pro football between 1960 and 1999 will have little argument that King was right. But times have changed.
In 1999, the NFL instituted the Tuck Rule after the fateful play involvingTom Brady and Charles Woodson that decided the AFC Championship game. In 2004, the league increased enforcement of the illegal contact rule after Bill Belichick’s strategy to manhandle Colts wide receivers at the line of scrimmage limited Indianapolis’ offense to a lowly 14 points and ruined a greatly anticipated shootout between Brady and Peyton Manning in the 2003 conference championship.
And in 2008, pro football modified its “below the knee” rule after a Week 1 season ending hit on Brady subverted the most exciting offense in football. It has now made the defensive secondary the second-class citizens of NFL positions.
Compared to the quarterbacks King wrote about in 1998 – not to mention the decades of signal callers who undoubtedly inspired King to write about the position – today’s signal callers are A-list sports celebrities with silver spoons in their mouths. They are the precious investments of the NFL’s high-scoring, highly profitable brand that inspires year-round coverage and a thriving fantasy sports industry.
(Just a quick tangent for those who care more about the quality and fairness of the game over its branding: One way to give defenses more equal footing in today’s game would be to alter or repeal the illegal contact rule and enforce pass interference violations with a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down rather than making it a spot foul.)
Despite the NFL creating a class system on the playing field, quarterback remains the most technically complex position to master in sport – especially now that it has to be a PR-savvy role within the organization, adding to its difficulty. However, when confining the difficulty of the position to the field of play, the position of safety now gives quarterback a run for its money.
Safeties have to be as versatile athletes as move tight ends. They have to cover the deep and intermediate zones from sideline to sideline with excellent range.
Whether it’s an undersized, water bug of a slot receiver or a power forward posing as a tight end, the safety has to display the athleticism to handle both. And not only do these defenders still have to play the run like a fourth or fifth linebacker and blitz the quarterback, but they also have to do it all in a league where the rules governing the primary role of their position have been engineered against their productivity and the enforcement process has become arbitrary.
The NFL quarterback is the blue blood of the playing field. He’s a lot like the senator’s son who goes from intern to COO to commissioner of a sports empire. In contrast, the NFL safety is kid from the wrong side of the railroad tracks. On appearances alone, the idea of a 5’8” safety is not only an underdog within the hierarchy of the league, he’s beneath the underdog.