NFL general managers once sought out height, pocket presence and ability to ‘play within structure’. Now, the league is looking for something different from its quarterbacks.
When you look at the starting signal-callers around the league, first consider the (successful) older, seasoned veterans: Tom Brady (43 years old), Drew Brees (41), Ben Roethlisberger (38), Philip Rivers (38), Aaron Rodgers (36), Matt Ryan (35), for example.
How would you describe their styles of play? What comes to mind when you think of their best traits?
For the most part, they are pocket-dwellers, with great arms and fantastic decision-making. They do their best work throwing, not running.
Yes, a young Big Ben was almost impossible to bring down, and Rodgers still occasionally uses his escapability to make dazzling plays on the move and find the first-down marker with his legs, but the defining trait is his throwing ability.
Now, when we look at the new breed of quarterback entering – and having great success – in the NFL, it’s not all about the arm. It’s the arm and the legs. Not “instead of”, but “as well as”.
This isn’t brand new
Let’s be clear: the players showing off their legs as well as arms each and every week haven’t come from nowhere. Michael Vick, Vince Young, Cam Newton, and going further back with Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, Fran Tarkenton – apologies if your own personal favourite wasn’t listed – created a blueprint for the successful dual-threat quarterback.
What is new is the pure volume of these rushing QBs, and the success they are having. What used to be a ‘one-off’ or situational, where defensive coordinators would have to create a special game plan, is now a regular theme.
Whereas read-option plays and the threat of a quarterback on the ground would almost be a trick play that confused defences, it’s now expected.
In fact, an offence that doesn’t make the opposition account for their 11th man as a running option is almost missing a trick. Why wouldn’t you want a QB who can stress a defence in one more way?
Speed is hard to stop
Last season’s league MVP, Lamar Jackson, tore defences apart in 2019. As mentioned above, it started with his arm and passing ability. He led all NFL quarterbacks with 36 passing touchdowns, and boasted an outstanding 113.3 passer rating – both elite numbers on their own.
But, of course, his legs are what made the Baltimore Ravens offence uniquely dynamic. Jackson broke the single-season rushing record for a QB with 1,206 yards on the ground, surpassing Vick. When the ball is in his hands, he is as electric and elusive as a running back.
This year, while the volume and consistency has dropped a fair amount, Jackson is still slashing teams on the ground, while doing enough through the air.
You can’t deny it is working – Jackson last week improved to 25-5 (.833) over his first 30 NFL starts, tying the best mark by a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl era, held by Hall of Famer Dan Marino.
With just 130 more rushing yards this season, he will become the first player with at least 5,000 passing yards (currently 5,841) and 2,500 rushing yards (2,370) through his first three seasons in NFL history – all at a slender 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds.
Following in Jackson’s blurry footsteps is Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who is enjoying his own sophomore breakout season and, similarly, goes against the traditional height and size combination of an NFL QB. At 5-foot-10 and 207 lbs, he became the shortest quarterback ever drafted in the first round. But that hasn’t stopped him.
Like Jackson, he is simply a nightmare to bring down. When you think you’ve got him in the backfield, he shimmies and pops right out. In the open field, he has a deceptive second gear.
While Murray’s passing numbers are respectable (2,130 passing yards, 16 TDs, 7 picks, 99.3 passer rating), it’s the fact they are only half the story that’s impressive.
Murray is eighth in the NFL among all runners, with 543 yards – and his 7.1 yards-per-carry average leads the entire league. Furthermore, he has scored eight rushing touchdowns, which trails only Dalvin Cook and Todd Gurley.
He may have started a little shaky, but since October, he has been on fire. In his last five games, he has 12 passing TDs to two picks, and last week he became just the fourth quarterback with at least three touchdown passes and a rushing touchdown in consecutive games.
If he continues to improve, a second-half season surge could put him in the MVP conversation.
Don’t ignore the big bodies
This modern quarterback doesn’t have to be smaller, or faster. Far from it.
Six-foot-five, 245-pound Cam Newton is the main man when it comes to quarterback rushing touchdowns, and he paved the way for the new-look NFL offence. In his epic rookie campaign in 2011, he found the end zone 14 times on the ground.
And almost a decade later, despite clearly not being at his best as a passer, Newton is on pace to smash his own TD record with eight so far.
Jackson, who goes up against Newton this week as the Ravens and New England Patriots meet on Sunday – live on Sky Sports – described him as the original Superman, saying: “A lot of us looked up to him.
“He won the Heisman, won the college championship, won MVP, went to the Super Bowl. I followed him a lot, wanted to get to where he’s at. Now I’m here, now I’ve got to play against him. I just can’t wait to do that.
“Game recognize game. He’s the O.G. – Superman.”
Newton returned the love, saying: “My boy Lamar has a gift not many human beings have got. I respect his game so much… I don’t even think I’m in that stratosphere.”
Newton may not be electric anymore, but he’s tough to bring down as a big, strong, bruising runner. This brings us to another of the standout ‘new age’ QBs.
Alongside Newton, Jackson and Murray, there is only one other quarterback in NFL history to achieve at least 500 rushing yards in each of their first two seasons in NFL history.
That man is Josh Allen, who like Newton, towers above defenders at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds.
Criticised before he’d even reached the NFL for a lowly 56.2 completion percentage in college, Allen is shutting up critics and proving his quality each and every week.
He has 22 rushing touchdowns through his first three seasons and, guess what? With some development, he has improved drastically as a passer too. Currently, Allen is third in passing yards (2,587), fifth in passing touchdowns (19) and eighth in passer rating (107.2). Like Jackson and Murray, he is doing it all.
After another outstanding showing in the Buffalo Bills’ 44-34 win over the Seattle Seahawks last week, Allen has four career games with at least three passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown, which is now tied for the most such games by any NFL player in his first three seasons.
Great passers ultimately the winners
Who would you say is the current NFL MVP favourite? Russell Wilson? Patrick Mahomes? Maybe Rodgers has a shout.
Ultimately, for quarterbacks, passing still comes first. There is no argument to be made for a quarterback who is rush first, pass second. They need to be successful from the pocket – or, at the very least, behind the line of scrimmage.
We haven’t even had the chance to talk about Deshaun Watson, who has a career passer rating of 102.4 and can still absolutely take over on the ground if he needs to. Watson has gone five straight games with at least 260 yards and a 109 passer rating – imagine the conversations we would have about him if the Houston Texans (2-6) had a somewhat reasonable defence.
Passers will always win and that will never change, but there’s no doubt we will see more quarterbacks come into the league with great rushing ability or, at least, some experience of running to stress a defence.
Who is next?
Justin Herbert has statistically been one of the most impressive rookies we’ve seen in recent years. Joe Burrow is racking up passing volume and slowly, but surely, wins. Most recently, Tua Tagovailoa has led the Miami Dolphins to two straight victories and looked outstanding in the most recent one over Murray’s Arizona.
Ladies and gentlemen…@Tua is the real deal. #FinsUp | @MiamiDolphins pic.twitter.com/QqWvP5yiDN
Will they achieve similar success to any of the aforementioned players as runners? It’s unlikely.
Herbert surprised with a 66-yard rushing outing against Jacksonville, and Burrow has managed three TDs on the ground, but it won’t be a common theme.
Tagovailoa, while he showed some wheels with seven carries for 35 yards last week, managed just 340 yards in 32 games at Alabama. He makes his reads, and only turns to the ground if there is is no other option.
Perhaps the wild card from the 2020 group is Eagles backup Jalen Hurts, who amassed both 9,477 yards and 80 touchdowns through the air and 3,274 yards and 43 touchdowns on the ground in college. Wherever and whenever he gets his shot, he will lead a multi-faceted attack.
Looking ahead to 2021, both Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields have that ‘if need be’ ability when it comes to running with the ball. Fields averages a rushing TD every other game, while you may have seen Lawrence score on a 67-yard scamper in a classic playoff bout between these two QBs last season. They don’t run first, but they can.
The future of quarterback play in the NFL is bright. At the very least, it will be exciting to watch.
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