As much as ESPN and NFL.com want you to think otherwise, quarterbacks who can make plays on their feet are nothing new to the game of football. 100 years ago when football was in it’s youth, the quarterback we’ve come to know today was really just another running back. Forward passing wasn’t even a big part of the game until a while later. And even then, when pocket quarterbacks were the craze, guys like Fran Tarkenton, Bobby Douglass and even Roger Staubach were sometimes just as effective, if not more effective, on their feet than in the air. In the modern era, Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, and Donovan McNabb have all had moderate to above moderate success on their feet.
So why does the NFL love runners again? Well, it’s simple. Today’s runners are different than the ones from back in the day. Just a couple years ago, a quarterback who hit the NFL running ended up in 3 places. The IR (Daunte Caulpepper), out of football altogether (Tim Tebow), or permanently in the pocket ( the aforementioned Young and McNabb). Those who avoided all three usually end up being incredibly lukewarm, like Michael Vick or Cam Newton. Then the 2012 season happened.
2012 brought us the best crop of mobile quarterbacks to ever step onto a football field. The towering, tattoo-clad Colin Kaepernick, the against all odds starter Russell Wilson, and the Olympic-class speed demon Robert Griffin III. All were successful scramblers in college and brought the read option to success in the NFL. Many of you might say “well Tim Tebow ran the read-option in Denver 2 years ago” but the difference between these three and Tebow is…they can throw the ball. And in the case of Colin and Russell, they know that sliding or running out of bounds to insure their safety is sometimes more important than the risky extra yard. That as quarterbacks, their safety and health is what is most crucial to a successful season. Ultimately that is what sets them ahead of a laundry list of scramblers in NFL history.
Watching the Minnesota Vikings play the Green Bay Packers last year in the playoffs, it hit me as to why the read option ultimately failed with Tebow and the Broncos. With Christian Ponder hurt, the Vikings turned to receiver turned quarterback Joe Webb. Webb, who is obviously less talented than Ponder, had one thing. Speed. With a 4.43 40 time, Joe Webb is a tenth of a second faster than Colin Kaepernick. Why not use that speed to bring down the Pack? While it was effective early on in the game, the Packers wised up pretty quickly and realized that since Joe Webb can throw the ball about as accurately as a second grader with a broken arm, why do we even cover the pass? They’re going to run the ball; whether it’s Webb or Adrian Peterson doing the running is irrelevant if we solely cover the run. So let’s over-commit. And over-commit they did, rolling on to beat the Vikes 24-10. That same defense was shredded by the 49ers just a week later. Just as the Vikings learned the hard way that NFL defenses are too talented and too quick to be beat by a run-only option, the Packers realized that when you combined an option offense with a quarterback who knows how to throw, it spells trouble.
And that is what Wilson and Kaepernick bring to the table that no other quarterback in the NFL today can bring. Being a Chicago Bears fan, I witnessed firsthand how a hybrid mobile-pocket quarterback can pick apart even a world-class defense like the Bears. Colin Kaepernick made his first career start against the Monsters of the Midway on a Monday night. Us Bear fans were excited how our veteran D would do up against a guy whose experience was, well, limited. Wary of Kaepernick’s speed, however, Urlacher and the Bears defense kept a safety or linebacker in as a spy on almost every play to ensure Colin didn’t take off like he did the week before against the Saint Louis Rams. Replacing the injured Alex Smith, Kaepernick rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown. Luckily for the Bears, he didn’t run much. Unluckily, he DID toss up two touchdown passes without a pic, and totaled 253 yards on the day. Weeks later against another young quarterback in the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, Chicago was embarrassed yet again. Up until that point in the year, Wilson had generally opted to stay in the pocket and pass like a traditional play caller. And he was pretty good. But against Chicago, he rose to greatness when him and Pete Carroll noticed the lack of containment from Bear defensive ends Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin. And right then and there, Seattle installed the read option. Wilson ran, passed, and handed off during a 90 plus yard come from behind drive that eventually put the Seahawks on top. Wilson Had 364 total yards on the day, with 2 touchdowns. “Easy yardage”, in the words of Pete Carroll.
In week one of the 2013 season, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson combined for 29 yards rushing, yet both threw for over 300 yards, combined for 4 touchdowns, and won their season openers. This season, they could very well rush for 100 yards each a week, destroying defenses on the ground instead. That’s the beauty of a mobile quarterback who is effective in the pocket. Unlike their numerous predecessors, they understand that sometimes the threat of running is more destructive to a defense than the run itself.
*Please note, this article was written on the afternoon of Monday September 9th,
before the start of the Redskins-Eagles game. Robert Griffin is not mentioned
because said article contains stats from Sunday September 8th, before Griffin
and the Redskins started their season.*