Can NFL's Young and Athletic Quarterbacks Sustain Their Rushing Successes?

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Can NFL's Young and Athletic Quarterbacks Sustain Their Rushing Successes?
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The NFL was hit by a youth movement at quarterback in the 2012 season, and there were a few rookies who combined rare dual-threat ability with elite-level athleticism in order to push their respective teams to success. 

But are these quarterbacks really the first wave of the future at their position, or is this just another fad?

Redskins signal-caller and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III had certain expectations of success as the No. 2 pick in the draft, but Russell Wilson also exploded in the second half of the season after the Seahawks borrowed some tricks from the Redskins' playbook.

The 49ers popularized the pistol offense in the NFL with Colin Kaepernick riding it all the way to Super Bowl XLVII. Kaepernick should run it as well as anyone after playing for Nevada’s Chris Ault, who is credited as the creator of the said offensive scheme. 

You can expect teams to explore these types of athletic quarterbacks more in the coming drafts. There is already buzz about Oregon-turned-Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly bringing former Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon to the Eagles this year (via NFL.com).

While all of these quarterbacks can run, the effectiveness they demonstrate when throwing the football will be what needs to be worked on the most going forward. Being able to run for first downs and escape sacks is a great advantage, but it cannot be the defining quality for these quarterbacks to have long-term success.

Health is another part of the game that cannot be ignored. Exposing a quarterback to dozens of big hits by some of the world’s most freakish athletes has always been cited as a reason the option and other college-style offenses never work in the NFL.

With so much attention on the fact that they ran the ball so often, here is a breakdown for each dual-threat rookie quarterback’s 2012 season, focusing on how they used their legs in the ground game and what they did (or did not do) to protect themselves.

 

Robert Griffin III: Most Dynamic, But Most Troublesome

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Griffin failed to finish three games in his rookie season and is now rehabbing a torn ACL, which is an injury he has already had in his college career at Baylor.

As the immediate starter, Griffin set the stage for this season’s rushing success from the rookie quarterbacks. His second play from scrimmage in the season opener in New Orleans was a zone-read option run for 12 yards.

No one keeps the ball on the zone-read option as much as Griffin, doing so on 42.2 percent of his total rushing plays this season. Wilson and Kaepernick held onto the ball just 26.5 percent and 26.6 percent of the time, respectively. 

Here is the breakdown of Griffin’s rushing plays this season (playoffs included). Runs like kneel-downs, fumbled snaps or handoffs and any broken plays are not counted, because we do not truly know the intention of these plays.

Griffin was actually more effective as a scrambler when pass plays broke down, but he was still averaging a deadly 7.06 yards per carry with the zone-read option. The draw play, arguably made famous by John Elway, was also a successful part of Griffin’s season.

When Washington was 3-6, Griffin used the zone-read option on 26 of his 76 runs (34.2 percent). Afterward, for what became a seven-game winning streak and division title, Griffin used it on 23 of his last 40 runs (57.5 percent).

Griffin’s 120 rushes despite missing the equivalent of roughly 1.33 games makes his season one of the most run-heavy by a quarterback in NFL history. The fact that 61.6 percent of his runs came by design also speaks to how Washington was using him in a rare way this season.

With so much success throwing the ball as well, it makes Griffin’s 2013 season one of the most anticipated sophomore seasons ever for a quarterback.

 

Russell Wilson: Hiding the Height Disadvantage 

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Wilson was thought to be at a disadvantage because of his height (5’11”), which explains his status as a third-round pick. But he overcame it this season—at least it seemed like he did with his Fran Tarkenton style of scrambling before completing a pass.

According to ESPN’s Mike Sando, no quarterback had more drop-backs outside of the pocket (119) than Wilson, and his 105 pass attempts there were well ahead of No. 2 Aaron Rodgers, who had 84 passes outside of the pocket in 2012. Wilson’s 814 passing yards on such plays led the league as well.

Based on ESPN’s QBR, Wilson was equally effective both inside (73.5) and outside (73.4) of the pocket. So what’s the issue here?

Consider that Wilson only had 393 pass attempts this season, which tied Griffin for the 25th most in the league. Yet Wilson still had the most passes outside of the pocket, as 26.7 percent of his passes were thrown that way.

Compare that to Rodgers (552 attempts), who only threw 15.2 percent of his passes outside of the pocket. You have to imagine Rodgers would be on the higher end of this stat based on how he plays the game, but Wilson is well ahead of him.

Is Wilson getting out of the pocket more because of pressure, or is he compensating for the height disadvantage by getting to a point where he has a clearer field of vision to throw?

This will be a stat to keep an eye on in 2013, but for 2012, here is Wilson’s rushing breakdown:

Wilson is very much a scrambling quarterback who looks to throw before taking off. His league-leading pass attempts outside of the pocket would probably be even higher if he chose not to run as much as he did.

While some of his rushing totals look a little pedestrian compared to those of Griffin and Kaepernick, it was late in the season when the Seahawks started utilizing Wilson’s mobility in the game plan.

The closest thing Seattle showed to the option was a failed play against the Packers in Week 3. The Seahawks didn't run a true zone-read option play—with Wilson where he kept the ball—until the game-winning drive against the Patriots three weeks later.

The Week 13 game in Chicago is really where Wilson had his breakout rushing performance, carrying nine times for 71 yards (five times on the option for 37 yards). Wilson didn't even have a rushing touchdown until he torched Buffalo with three of them in Week 15.

Wilson may be the most polished passer of these three quarterbacks, and it seems clear he would rather throw for now—but the allure of using the zone-read with Marshawn Lynch drawing attention in the backfield will be too enticing for Seattle not to continue experimenting with it in 2013.

 

Colin Kaepernick: Dying For a “Deer in the Headlights” Headline

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Kaepernick’s deer-like running style is impressive to watch. He gets from one point to another faster than any quarterback, as evidenced by his 15-yard touchdown in the Super Bowl.

But during the big game, CBS’ Phil Simms had a rather damning comment on Kaepernick’s ability to throw the ball—or, in other words, play the quarterback position. 

Immediately following a pass that was nearly intercepted for a touchdown in the second quarter, Simms said, “Well, Colin Kaepernick does not anticipate throws. He likes to see the person open, and then he fires the football.”

While Simms had a miserable night calling the game, botching the facts about Kaepernick’s effectiveness as a runner among other things, this particular comment may not have been all that wrong. Anticipation is something you expect from a veteran like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but not so much a kid in his 10th start.

Then again, it was only four throws later when Kaepernick showed this anticipation on a 28-yard strike to Delanie Walker.

Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII (NFL.com).

Simms remarked: “If Colin Kaepernick cannot run, you see why he can still be a big-time quarterback in the NFL. He just makes special throws. That was a special throw, that last one.”

Let’s just say on a weekend that included Groundhog Day and the Super Bowl, the most accurate Simms was probably the one working on Saturday. Kaepernick did not have a great game, but he has shown plenty of promise with his arm.

Here is what he did with his legs, Super Bowl included:

So, dynamic by design or just scrambling, Kaepernick had a good game running the ball in Super Bowl XLVII with seven carries for 62 yards and a touchdown. He had a nine-yard gain on a draw play, but only used the zone-read option once for a lousy three-yard gain after Alex Boone blocked nothing for him. It was five scrambles for 50 yards that drove his success on the ground.

The ceiling is sky high for Kaepernick as a full-time starter in 2013. It still felt like there were training wheels placed on him this season, and for good reason, but there should be nothing holding him back now that he is the starting quarterback for the 49ers.

 

How Did Each Quarterback Protect Himself as a Runner?

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The quarterback slide has been a big topic in recent years, with President Obama infamously remarking last year that Michael Vick needs to slide more.

But sometimes it's 3rd-and-10, the first down is crucial and you have to take a hit. Even though the slide and getting out of bounds are helpful ways to keep quarterbacks healthy, a late hit will still occur from time to time. Football is a dangerous game.

With that in mind, here is a look at the way these three quarterbacks finished their running plays in 2012 (playoffs included):

To be “tackled straight” is when a quarterback is tackled in the field of play while meeting his defender head on or from the side. These are not good, especially for guys with a small frame like all three of these players.

The difference in “tackled while driving forward” is the quarterback extends his body into a diving position to end the play. This usually works better than trying to meet a linebacker head on.

These quarterbacks are arguably too fast to be tackled from behind, but Griffin was pulled down by a horse-collar tackle once this season.

The “no play” relates to a lot of the fumbled snaps where the quarterback was not a factor, or aborted plays like Wilson twice throwing backward passes that were laterals, which means a fumble.

Wilson is very much into the slide, with four more slides than Griffin and Kaepernick combined. He does not look to get out of bounds that often.

Griffin often looks for that boundary line, though it is unbelievable how often early in the season he was getting crushed on his way out of bounds. Some of the hits were flagged for 15-yard penalties, but sometimes it was let go, like in this play against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3.

Robert Griffin III knocked out of bounds against Cincinnati (NFL.com).

Griffin was a lot more daring in his rushing approach this season, which could explain why he was the most injured of the quarterbacks. He was body slammed against Tampa Bay. He was sandwiched on hits by multiple defenders.

I came close to creating a “limped out of bounds” category for Griffin, as he was clearly hobbled late in the season, especially in the playoffs. Yet Mike Shanahan continued to use him on the ground after his return from injury. Ten of Griffin’s last 11 carries before the tragic fumbled snap play that ended his season were zone-read option runs.

This is subjective and not included, but it did seem like Griffin suffered more big hits than Kaepernick and Wilson combined this season. More sliding and ducking out of bounds needs to be on Shanahan’s agenda to keep backup Kirk Cousins on the bench. 

Kaepernick’s running style may be the best of the group here in terms of sustaining his success in this league without injury. Statistically, he is the most effective runner, but it is the way he easily gets out of bounds without contact that keeps him out of harm’s way.

While Kaepernick is in good shape with his playing style, Wilson could use some more decisiveness. He has a knack for holding onto the ball a long time in the backfield before either scrambling or throwing a pass. He does it very well, but this style is an injury waiting to happen.

Griffin has the most work to do in this area, and how he is used with his legs after another major knee injury will be one of the most-followed storylines in the 2013 season.

 

Conclusion: Passing Will Still be the Difference Maker

The NFL’s future appears to be in great shape with quarterbacks like these three leading their teams, but while the running plays are always great for highlights, it is still a pass-first league.

Had Kaepernick been able to complete more passes in the red zone, he would probably have a Super Bowl ring right now. He is young and has plenty of room to grow, but it is that development in the passing game that will ultimately determine how successful his career is. The future physical decline in his rushing ability is unavoidable, but he can always control an offense with his mind and arm.

In the short term, all three of these quarterbacks should continue to put up impressive rushing numbers, as will someone like Cam Newton in Carolina. But now that coaching staffs will have an offseason to study how this pistol and zone-read option was being used this season, it will be the 2013 season that likely determines how much success will be had in this style moving forward.

These quarterbacks have a talent that goes far beyond any gimmick, so the thought to rush out and sign a reclamation project like Dennis Dixon to get this type of production is fool’s gold.

This athletic trio made up half of the NFC playoffs this season. Well, technically Joe Webb was a fourth starter in that mold, but his lack of passing ability proves barrs him from this conversation. 

You still have to throw the ball to succeed, but the rushing quarterback certainly adds that extra dimension to an offense. But health and consistent progress in the passing game have always been the factors holding these players back from elite status.

Maybe this will be the wave that changes past perceptions, or maybe it's just another cycle of false hope in NFL history—like when Kordell Stewart, Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb were making the Pro Bowl and Michael Vick was the No. 1 pick in the draft who was supposed to change everything.

But so far, so good.  

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports and Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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