It’s nearly impossible to watch a professional football game without being subjected to an overused adage about the NFL being a “copycat league.”
There is a large nugget of truth buried in that idea. Changing trends and borrowed ideas can be found throughout the league. But the term “copycat” suggests a new idea, pilfered by someone else for his own use. In fact, the NFL is a cyclical league, and strategies are often recycled and adapted for the modern NFL.
The “Wildcat” offense, made popular in the modern college game, can be traced back to Kansas State in the late '90s. It is predicated on the ideas of Pop Warner’s single-wing offense of the early 1900s.
Tony Sparano and the Miami Dolphins showed us the Wildcat can work in the NFL, and now nearly every team in the league has its own version of this “revolutionary,” century-old rushing attack.
Green Bay’s early success in the infancy of the NFL can be contributed in large part to Vince Lombardi’s power-sweep offense. Bill Walsh set the NFL on fire in the '70s and '80s with the West Coast offense. Air Coryell, zone blocking, the spread offense and two-tight end sets: We find elements of all these schemes in the modern NFL.
The reason so many offensive trends fade over time is because teams learn to stop them. Without the perfect personnel mix, these offenses fail. And when the system appears to be broken, it is replaced by a new-old idea, modified for the times.
Coaches can game plan for offensive strategies and neutralize even the best offensive systems. But what even the best coaches in history have failed to defuse is superior talent, unscathed by the Tampa-2, the zone blitz, the 46 defense or the double a-gap blitz. Superior athletes.
We’re seeing a resurgence of special talent at the quarterback position in the NFL.
It comes as no surprise to any football fan that the NFL is a pass-happy league, dominated by high-octane offenses and 4,000-yard passers. If you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have much.
The always changing, always adapting defensive coaches of the league will find ways to marginalize pass-heavy NFL offenses in time. As history suggests, the NFL will look a lot different in 20 years. Perhaps we’re seeing the revolution firsthand.
Michael Vick—though not the first dual-threat quarterback to play professional football— marked a resurgence in the popularity of the style. In 2006, at the pinnacle of his statistical success in the NFL, Vick passed for nearly 2,500 yards, added over 1,000 yards on the ground and combined for 22 touchdowns.
Vick has experienced his share of failure in the league, though, which made Cam Newton’s path to the NFL a little more difficult.
Although Newton was selected first overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2011, the speculation around the league was that Newton didn’t have the throwing ability as a “pure passer” to succeed in the league. His college career at Auburn was astounding—with a national championship and Heisman trophy to show for it—but would his athleticism be enough to get it done at the next level?
Newton proved all the critics wrong last year, combining for 4,700 yards of offense and 35 total touchdowns. It was the best rookie campaign by any quarterback in league history. He did it with his arm, and especially with his legs. Newton was a force last year, and the negative discussion about dual-threat quarterbacks seemingly disappeared during the offseason of 2012.
Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have benefited from Newton’s success. The stigma of the dual-threat quarterback, and marginal passing ability associated with it, diminished during the NFL draft discussion. Few questioned the Washington Redskins for selecting Griffin, even after having given up a slew of draft picks for the second overall pick.
Wilson, who likely would have fallen much further in the draft in past years due to his below-average height, was selected in the third round by the Seattle Seahawks. It was assumed Matt Flynn (beneficiary of a generous offseason contract) would be Seattle’s starter this season, but Wilson was given a legitimate shot at the starting job and came out on top.
Newton, Wilson and Griffin have shown in their extremely limited professional careers that dual-threat quarterbacks can be successful, and not just as Wildcat quarterbacks or gimmick position players. Even Tim Tebow, who has been widely criticized for his ineptitude in the passing game, has shown he can be a winning quarterback.
The sample size is small, but sometimes that’s all it takes for a trend to catch fire in the NFL.
Athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks present unique problems for defenses at every level of the game, especially the NFL. Defenses have had to adapt to pass-heavy offensive attacks with smaller, faster defensive backs, which is becoming a weakness against teams like the Patriots and Saints, which are employing offenses with big, fast and athletic tight ends.
Man-coverage schemes are the new norm in the NFL, as good quarterbacks tend to pick apart zone defenses in short periods of time. But man coverage breaks down against a mobile quarterback. Defensive backs blanket their receiver, and can be run off coverage, vacating large portions of the field to which mobile quarterbacks can scamper for big plays.
Dual-threat quarterbacks necessitate extra defenders to account for them, which makes a player like Newton so much more effective. He can beat defenses with his legs and his arm, and is proving to be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
The success of these quarterbacks is a limited sample size, and only time will tell if fast, agile and intelligent dual-threat quarterbacks can continue to wreak havoc on opponents in the NFL. But history suggests we will find out.
We could be witnessing a new offensive trend in the league. It takes the success of one individual or team with a different idea for how the game can be played. The NFL has taken notice of what this new generation of quarterbacks can do.
In the next few years, we may see an added emphasis on mobile quarterbacks with less-than-elite passing ability in the NFL. And as we’ve witnessed time and again, defenses will eventually adapt to the changing landscape, giving way to a new trend. And another. And another.
For now, the dual-threat quarterback is here, and the future of the position could very well rest on the shoulders of a select few young quarterbacks just trying to win in the NFL.