If NFL's Mobile QBs Want To Survive in This League, Their Games Must Evolve
Change or die.
For the business world, that phrase is a mantra of innovation and diversity. Companies that stay in a rut for too long will eventually become stale and rot at the end of their own little vine, as more dynamic companies adapt and find new methods of joining old practices with the needs and desires of today's consumers.
For the newest crop of NFL mobile quarterbacks, that mantra might be even more important.
As of Wednesday morning, Robert Griffin III is headed for a lengthy rehab after surgery on his injured LCL. While Dr. James Andrews is inside Griffin's knee, he will be able to assess possible damage to the ACL, cartilage or other parts of Griffin's knee. Depending on what the rest of the knee looks like and how quickly Griffin is able to rehab, he may end up missing the beginning of the 2013 season.
At the very least, the upcoming offseason is lost to Griffin. There will be no "players only" throwing sessions to bond with receivers, no minicamps, no maturation. At worst, Griffin comes back as a completely different player with less explosion and a propensity for leg injuries.
If Running QB's is the new wave? You better get a bunch of body bags and get your backups ready..— Alonzo Highsmith (@alonzohighsmith) January 9, 2013
The NFL has always had running quarterbacks, but we've reached what could easily be called a golden age of the phenomenon. As college schemes continue to churn out Cam Newtons, Russell Wilsons and Colin Kaepernicks, more NFL coaches will look to take advantage of their special skill set.
Moreover, as quarterbacks like Griffin have success on the NFL level, more and more high school quarterbacks are going to look to duplicate that success.
Eventually, someone might even find a use for Tim Tebow.
The shelf life on mobile quarterbacks has never been great. To compare them to the normal population of NFL passers, I wanted to avoid cherry-picking examples. I compared the men on NFL Network's list of "Top 10 Mobile Quarterbacks" with those on two "Top 10 NFL QB" lists—from Clark Judge of CBS Sports and Kerry Byrne of Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Now, there is some overlap on the lists and plenty of asterisks (guys who played in the USFL or who spent time away from the game for various reasons), but the general gist is clear: Mobile quarterbacks play fewer years overall and spend less time as elite players compared to their peers.
As Mobile Quarterbacks Age, Their Best Attributes Deteriorate
One guy on that list of top mobile quarterbacks figured all of this out pretty early on in his career.
Donovan McNabb came out of Syracuse as an elite dual-threat QB. He spent most of his early years rolled out to the perimeter, often with little more than reckless abandon for his own safety. Throwing to such luminaries as James Thrash and Freddie Mitchell, running was often a better option for McNabb.
In 2004, that changed. With Terrell Owens at his disposal and with part of a season (2002) already missed because of a broken ankle, McNabb became more of a pocket passer than ever before. For the most part, while he would still bootleg on occasion, he was no longer the wily runner he was for the Orangemen.
2004 also happened to be the only season McNabb was named NFC Player of the Year and the only year his Eagles made it to the Super Bowl.
For young quarterbacks, making that transition from dual-threat to pro-style is quickly becoming a stepping stone on the way to a successful NFL career. Vince Young couldn't make that jump; neither could Tarvaris Jackson. Alex Smith was starting under Jim Harbaugh, but a concussion ended his run as a successful high-percentage passer.
Quarterbacks, like all of us, age. Age affects every athlete at varying degrees, but eventually it will catch up to all of them. Fans have a misconstrued notion of quarterbacks as set apart from the normal NFL aging process, but for every Brett Favre and John Elway, there are plenty of quarterbacks falling off the map at the same time as other positions.
Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats took a look at stat regression of older quarterbacks. Burke found that quarterbacks tend to peak at 29 and slowly decline until they hit a wall. When looking at elite quarterbacks, Burke found:
The bottom line is that very successful quarterbacks like Manning aren't going to become bad slowly. All of sudden one year, they'll have significant drop-off in performance. If they were 26 and had the same kind of season or had a similar injury, they'd no doubt be back at camp the following July. But at 36, that job in the broadcast booth will seem quite enticing.
For a quarterback who needs mobility to thrive in the NFL, that drop-off is going to come sooner rather than later.
This isn't about scouting an opponent out and building a blueprint to stop him, or about running quarterbacks being a "gimmick." No, it's a simple matter of things like speed, acceleration and flexibility declining as athletes age.
Former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton told me that he "wasn't the same mobile at 38 as I was at 25, but I learned to adapt. I didn't take a lot of big hits. I made sure I didn't put myself in a vulnerable position. I didn't try to run over people."
Relating that to Griffin, he said, "RGIII tries to run over people. I protected myself. Roger Staubach protected himself. RGIII has a problem. If you take enough hard hits, you're going to go down."
Tarkenton told me that he played his final season "a month shy of 39." Later, he would learn that his ACL was torn and that his shoulder was broken. "I learned to adapt," Tarkenton said—a lesson Griffin and any other quarterback would be wise to learn as quickly as possible.
Mobile Quarterbacks Have Greater Injury Risk, Despite Immediate Reward of Play
In addition to the effects of age, it's also a matter of wear and tear. In the wake of RGIII's injury, the health and well-being of these guys is already at the forefront, and former NFL quarterback Shaun King thinks that the Redskins are "misusing Griffin" and putting him at risk.
King ran for over 450 yards in his six seasons in the NFL. Before that, at Tulane, he ran the spread offense under Rich Rodriguez but passed the ball far more than many of today's players running the same concepts.
Over the phone, King explained that quarterbacks only need to use their athleticism in the passing game when they're not familiar with the system. Bailing out after the initial read is what they've done their entire careers, and it worked at lower levels because they're usually the best athletes on the field. In the NFL, King explained, that's rarely the case.
Can The Redskins Continue To Use RGIII Like They Used Him in 2012?
The problem with the zone-read in King's mind, as well as the Redskins' use of it, is that it equates to a guaranteed hit for the quarterback. Scrambles aren't a guaranteed hit; neither are pass plays. In a league where collisions are compared to train wrecks, any hit can end a career. Why ensure that your quarterback is going to go through that more often than he has to?
Playing football is dangerous, period. But mobile quarterbacks who act like running backs are going to run the same risk that the young men at that position do—prematurely ending their careers.
For teams like the Redskins, protecting their investment long-term might mean changing their strategy away from what has worked so well. For teams that have flirted with the zone-read (Seattle, Carolina, San Francisco, etc.), the focus should be on developing their young quarterbacks as passers, rather than runners.
Of course the scheme works, because it makes teams worry about something new. Defenders who are thinking rather than reacting are usually defenders who are making mistakes. A well-run option can also inflate the numbers of a runner like Alfred Morris, as defenders are slow to flow over and tackle him.
The game has evolved to a point where quarterback mobility is extremely relevant again. Tim Tebow was not as much a harbinger of this era as he was a call back to a time when the differences between quarterback and halfback were limited to where the player lined up.
Maybe they'll never be chained to the pocket like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but if young quarterbacks like Griffin, Wilson, Newton and others want to stick around as NFL quarterbacks, it is clear they'll need to evolve as well.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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