Punch Drunk Wonderland

There are no old running quarterbacks

Running Quarterbacks, Mobile QuarterbacksIn recent years we’ve seen the rhetoric associated with the notion of mobile quarterbacks change, and with it so have the offensive schemes. It seems nowadays nearly every young quarterback coming out of college falls into the category of “mobile quarterback.” Even young quarterbacks that are labeled as “pocket passers” such as Andrew Luck are extremely athletic and mobile compared to the signal callers of just five or ten years ago. In general, NFL players are more impressive physical specimens in the modern day than in days of old. These kids coming into the league are incredibly athletic, well oiled machines that are more or less bred (or at least painstakingly conditioned) to be superhuman football specimens.

Players such as Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and RGIII have reignited the conversation concerning whether a read-option style offense can succeed in the NFL. For years, the common thinking was that such schemes were “college only” offensive approaches that can’t translate to the NFL where defenses are faster and more athletic. The “spread”, “read-option”, “wildcat” and the like fit perfectly in college because the tenets of those approaches pit greater athletes versus lesser athletes. If a college offense feels they have an athletic advantage versus the opposing, less athletically talented defense, then why not go with those types of approaches? In the NFL, every player is talented. Every player is athletic. Even the worst of defenses are leaps and bounds more talented than top college defenses. Thus, thinking a team could leverage athleticism in the NFL the way it can be done in college is just not realistic. We’ve seen this in action. The wildcat formation burst onto the NFL landscape and had near immediate success, but it was short lived. Many teams picked it up to use in a low percentage of plays in their gameplan, but for the most part NFL defensive coordinators have found ways to handle the style. The mystery born of novelty at the NFL level quickly disappeared, and the wildcat became more or less a gadget play that sees occasional use. It’s become something for which coordinators can prepare.

Enter the read-option. Time will tell whether its fate will also be short lived in the NFL. The read-option and the hot formation of 2012, “The Pistol”, seem to be the buzz right now. Colin Kaepernick’s success in the formation has made it an interesting talking point and center for NFL offensive and defensive philosophical banter.

The idea of using the gifts of a mobile quarterback are not new to the NFL. For decades the wishbone formation was used in college, but it never translated over to the NFL well. Quarterback of old, Jim Plunkett, was involved with an NFL version of the wishbone in the 1970s with the New England Patriots, but the style didn’t catch on and Plunkett took punishment as a running quarterback. In regards to the wishbone and running quarterbacks, Plunkett once said,

There are old quarterbacks and there are running quarterbacks, but there are no old running quarterbacks.

Plunkett, himself known for his mobility, may have nailed it on the head with his sentiment. The larger issue pertaining to the success of the read-option is that of the longevity of your quarterback. Even if coordinators and NFL defenses don’t evolve to shut down the offensive style, the persistence of the read-option would near definitely result in shortened careers of those quarterbacks involved in the systems. That would then mean that running the read-option would create a personnel tax for teams as they would be more frequently in the market for young athletic quarterbacks that fit the archetype. Gone would be the days of 15+ year careers for NFL signal callers. Read-option quarterbacks would soon be relegated to the style of thinking that has been applied to running backs. That is, backs are too worn down by age 30 to continue to produce. A similar philosophy would likely be applied to those quarterbacks.

Case in point: Michael Vick. Legal issues and time away aside, Vick’s time in the NFL has been limited by injury because of his role as a mobile quarterback. Granted, he could have avoided injuries over his career by being a little more careful with his body, but physicality and playmaking comes with the territory for these mobile QBs. In 10 seasons in the NFL Vick only managed to play a full 16 game season once (2006). Let’s look at these other mobile signal callers. Fresh out of college and on young, fresh legs, Robert Griffin III didn’t manage a full season his rookie year, and he topped it off with a fairly daunting knee injury.   Wilson and Kaepernick managed to get through their rookie seasons relatively unscathed. Cam Newton has been beat up in his first two seasons, but he’s also managed to play in every game. Tebow has stayed pretty healthy throughout his opportunities. The common thread here is that the big durable QBs seem to hold up and the smaller mobile QBs tend to give in to injury. That said, the style of play will wear down even the most durable of quarterbacks. Cam Newton is a big player, but he certainly won’t be able to play with the same athleticism, speed, mobility, and production for 12 more years.

Recently, former Colts GM Bill Polian spoke on Dan Dakich’s radio show about the physical punishment a running quarterback can take. He made it clear that a viable defensive approach to limit the effectiveness of the style is to beat up the QB.

I think the way to stop [ the read-option] is to hit the quarterback on every play, and, after a while, he’s gonna get tired of being hit. And, he’s gonna say to the coach, don’t call that anymore.

The mobility of quarterbacks is certainly an asset for these young stars, but careers can be shortened with greater potential to take damage. Sure, the NFL landscape could change and quarterbacks could become hybrid players with short lived careers, but I don’t see it happening. As with all new offensive trends, the defenses will catch on. Given time with film, coordinators will scheme to limit the effectiveness of the read-option. Quarterbacks will get beat up. And, like so many other failed approaches to offensive innovation in the NFL, the read-option will be relegated to a low percentage of plays for those teams with the personnel to try it.

Rest assured, there won’t be any old running quarterbacks.

K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...