A quarterback who can run like a running back.
This idea has intrigued coaches ever since football has been around.
For decades, coaches, team management, and fans have had this perception and hypothesis that if we could just find a quarterback that could be a constant, legitimate running threat, then the offense would be unstoppable.
A quarterback that can take off and run if their receiver isn’t open?
That will change the game. Everybody should do it.
There is merit to this theory. Mobility gives the quarterback one more option during any given play. Having an extra running threat gives the defense one more thing to prepare for. Running quarterbacks can break the big one on any given play.
These are some of the many logical reasons why a running quarterback would revolutionize offensive football. But, the idea hasn’t produced the desired result yet. This isn’t to say that the idea is a total bust; some running quarterbacks have had success in the NFL (Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham, Fran Tarkenton), but none have won a Super Bowl. Why is that? Why does a running quarterbacks’ success reach a plateau short of the ultimate goal?
The reasons are numerous.
Reason #1: Running quarterbacks do not read defenses as well as their slow-footed counterparts
For a regular from-the-pocket quarterback, running to gain yardage is the least attractive option. What that means is: quarterbacks like Marino, Brady, Stabler, Unitas, or Montana would do whatever they could to complete the pass, and that means figuring out what the defense is going to do before the play starts. When a quarterback has a legitimate option to run, they are not going to try as hard to complete the pass, and that means less reading of the defense. When presented with options, people usually choose the easiest option that will yield the maximum benefit. Which is easier: Taking off on the ground to where the least amount of defenders are, or figuring out how to complete a pass on a third and ten against the virtually limitless number of pass coverages?
So, what’s the solution to this problem? Do you try to teach your raw, talented quarterback how to read defenses once they get to the level where they have to? There is always a coach that will try that approach, but the running quarterback will always be behind their stationary counterpart because for the stationary quarterback, running was never a viable option. The stationary quarterback has been reading defenses ever since they have been playing because they had to. Trying to give someone a crash-course on reading defenses when they never have needed to before is like trying to prepare a kid to take the SAT’s when they haven’t paid attention in school since crayons were a required material. Even if they’re ready to start paying attention, they’re so far behind the curve that they will always be somewhat behind the quarterback who has always been a student of the game. Also, if the concept of reading defenses doesn’t give them immediate, visible success, they will fall back into old patterns, which means running.
Michael Vick was quoted this season, saying that this was the first time he had ever really tried to read a defense. After over two decades of playing football in his life, this was the first time he ever tried to understand what the defense was going to do before the play? Why now? The answer is simple: Because running only works to a certain point. Anyone who thinks that he can learn how to read a defense as good as Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or even Donovan McNabb is delusional.
Reason #2: Having a running quarterback makes everybody else on the offense less good at their jobs.
Having a quarterback who is a dangerous runner is great for keeping a defense on edge, but it is also a crutch. Linemen may not pass-protect as well because subconsciously, they know that the quarterback has a good chance to escape. Receivers for running quarterbacks usually aren’t the greatest route-runners because there is an excellent chance that the quarterback is just going to improvise the play, or take off and run. The coaching staff may be less creative in their play-calling because they have that weapon at their disposal. The coaching staff could also be willing to let certain flaws in the rest of the offense go unfixed because they really don’t need to be fixed as long as the quarterback is still scrambling for yards on improvised plays.
At first, the quarterbacks’ scrambling resulting in big plays almost seems like stolen yardage, but it doesn’t take long for an offense to expect to score on the big play. Soon after expecting to score on the big play, they will begin to rely on it, and there will be games against some defenses where the big play just isn’t there. Scrambling and running around usually doesn’t go together with patience very well.
Reason #3: Designed quarterback runs and trick plays stop working when you have a running quarterback.
What makes quarterback draws and naked bootlegs work?
Naked bootlegs work because the defense is playing under the assumption that the running back is the biggest running threat on the field. The “naked” part of the naked bootleg is that the quarterback has no blockers in front of him, relying on the defense concentrating all of their focus on the running back.
Quarterback draws (and draws in general) work under the assumption that the defense is looking for the pass, and nothing else. The defense sees linemen blocking for the pass, receivers running pass routes, the quarterback dropping back to pass, and reacts to the pass, not noticing the quarterback (or running back) sprinting up the middle, stealing yardage.
These plays work because the defense’s primary concern is not in the quarterback running the ball. Installing a running quarterback rearranges the defense’s priorities. On the goal line, you might as well take the naked bootleg out of the playbook because everyone in the stadium knows to watch the quarterback. Sure, every once in a while the quarterback will make a great athletic play to score on a bootleg, but why not just give the ball to the running back to make the same play? That’s what running backs there to do.
As for quarterback draws, defensive linemen rush a running quarterback than they rush a pocket-dweller. Rushing a scrambler means having a lane to guard and staying in it, much like covering a kickoff or punt. If defensive linemen and linebackers are staying in their lanes, quarterback draws are dead on arrival.
Of course, there are times when these plays will work even though the defense is prepared to stop them, but usually not against the top teams. Case in point: in each of John Elway’s three Super Bowl losses in the 80’s (XXI, XXII, XXIV), the Broncos ran planned quarterback runs.
On first and goal from the one against the Giants in Super Bowl 21, a quarterback sweep resulted in a two-yard loss, and the Broncos missed a 23-yard field goal three plays later.
On third and three from the six against the Redskins in Super Bowl 22, a quarterback draw lost one yard, and the Broncos had to settle for a field goal.
On third and goal from the three against the 49ers in Super Bowl 24, Elway made a great athletic play and scored on a quarterback draw. The problem? The Broncos were down 41-3 at that point, and Elway had a hard time completing any pass that wasn’t a shovel pass or a screen pass.
Reason #4: Pocket passers get sacked less often than running quarterbacks
You would think that being an effective runner would eliminate getting sacked from the equation, but it actually does the exact opposite. The chances of getting sacked only go up with each second the quarterback holds the ball. Pocket passers read the defense and get rid of the ball because there is nothing to be gained by holding the ball. Running quarterbacks won’t let go of the ball because they are used to making plays with their legs that running looks like the better option than passing.
Do you know which quarterbacks hold the record for least times getting sacked in a season?
Dan Marino (1988, Miami)- 7 sacks
John Brodie (1970, SF), Jim Hart (1975, STL Cardinals)- 8 sacks
Joe Namath (1966, NY Jets), Mark Rypien (1991, Washington)- 9 sacks
There is not a single runner in this group. In fact, these quarterbacks are comically slow. These quarterbacks passed often and repeatedly, and yet only got sacked about once every other game. You could make an argument about how great their offensive lines were, and that’s why they didn’t get sacked, and you would be right. But all quarterbacks get sacked, just like all running backs fumble, all receivers drop passes, and all defenders drop passes or get beat on pass coverage. Getting sacked happens to every quarterback, but it happens to the smart pocket-quarterbacks the least.
These weren’t run-first offenses, either. Jim Hart ran the Air-Coryell offense years before it made Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow famous in San Diego. Namath was the star of the AFL’s signature New York franchise that just loved to show off his talents. Mark Rypien spent the season airing it out to Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders (two of which had thousand-yard receiving seasons). John Brodie even threw for almost three thousand yards in a time when offenses were still centered around the running game. Who was the Dolphins’ running back in the late 80’s? Yeah, nobody else remembers either.
Reason #5: A running quarterback tires out the rest of the offense
When a quarterback is running around behind the line of scrimmage looking for someone to throw to, the play lasts longer. As a single occurrence, this doesn’t mean much. When it happens repeatedly, the other ten players have to constantly work harder.
Do you know why offensive coordinators want passes out of the quarterback’s hand in three seconds or less? Because the chances of getting sacked goes up exponentially after the three-second mark. That is just too long to expect linemen to hold their blocks. Also, when the quarterback runs across the field, the linemen have to go with him because where the ball goes, defenders go.
How do receivers get open on a broken play? When a quarterback runs out of the pocket, receivers are instructed to run to the same sideline, and back to the quarterback. That strategy allows for the best possible angle to complete the pass. It also makes the receivers run much longer than necessary. Again, once or twice is OK, repeatedly makes for tired and frustrated receivers. Fatigue sets in with frustration. Receivers get frustrated if a quarterback doesn’t stick with the plan and does their own thing. It’s easy to understand how a receiver would get frustrated when they thought they had to run an eight-yard route, and ends up running sixty yards on the play because they had to run to the other side of the field, to where the quarterback was scrambling. When this happens a few times a drive, fatigue and frustration sets in, and tempers can flare.
Reason #6: The weaknesses of a running quarterback (and their offenses) get exposed in the playoffs and the Super Bowl
A quarterback running due to necessity can win some games, but it never lasts forever. The most complete teams make the playoffs. Sure, there are some teams that have an offense way better than their defense, or vice versa, but most playoff teams are there because they are playing well on both sides of the ball. All playoff teams are there because they win more often that the rest, and winning is not a mistake.
I’ve already shown that teams with running quarterbacks have weaknesses. All teams have some weaknesses, but the problem with teams led by running quarterbacks is that their weaknesses can be hidden to themselves by highlight material and fan mania. It’s hard for players and coaches to introspect and find their own flaws when they make the SportsCenter Top 10 every week.
Playing in the playoffs is like being put in a pressure cooker. It can either make something great, or destroy whatever is inside it. Teams with massive flaws (like the ones above) fall into the latter category. Look at the running quarterbacks who made it to the Super Bowl: Fran Tarkenton (Minnesota Vikings, Super Bowls VIII, IX, XI), John Elway (Broncos, Super Bowls XXI, XXII, XXIV; I’m only counting early in his career, he wasn’t a runner in ’97 and ’98), Steve McNair (Titans, Super Bowl XXXIV), and David Woodley (Dolphins, Super Bowl XVII).
Eight out of the ninety-two teams (counting each team and each year as an individual team) that have participated in a Super Bowl have been led by a running quarterback. Those are not good odds. All eight of those teams lost in the Super Bowl (Tarkenton and Elway three times each). The closest of those Super Bowl loses was seven points (23-16, Super Bowl XXXIIII, Rams/Titans), but the average was a twenty-point margin of defeat. All eight of the teams with running quarterbacks lost to teams that were clearly better coached, more balanced, more fundamentally sound, less flawed, and more complete teams. That is not a coincidence. What’s the moral of the story? Teams with running quarterbacks turn into train-wrecks in the playoffs. The numbers don’t lie on this one.
Maybe it’s our rebellious culture as Americans. Maybe it’s our insatiable thirst for the exciting big play. Maybe it’s our optimistic tendency to see what could be instead of what actually is. Whatever it is, the evidence clearly shows that using a quarterback as a full-time running threat should be put to rest permanently. Let the quarterback position do what it was intended to do: throw the ball, lead the team, score points. There’s no need to add extra responsibility to the most responsible position in football.