Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson bucked the trend in 2012, but mobile quarterbacks have consistently struggled to find the winning formula. For every mobile quarterback that is successful, there are at least three failures.
The mobile quarterback trend hasn’t translated to winning consistently, and it may never be a winning formula in the NFL. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of running quarterbacks, but it’s important to remember that the success of mobile quarterbacks in 2012 was tied to their ability to throw more than it was their ability to run.
Put simply, the few mobile quarterbacks who have been successful have also been good passers. If the quarterback is a good passer, then there is little reason to subject him to the hits he will take running the ball.
A quarterback has rushed for over 400 yards in a season only 49 times since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, and seven of those seasons have occurred in the last two years. Only three quarterbacks in the history of the NFL have averaged over 50 rushing yards per game in a season (Michael Vick four times, Randall Cunningham and Griffin once).
Quarterbacks are often judged by Super Bowl victories, and there just aren’t many mobile quarterbacks on the list. The only quarterback who would qualify as a mobile (running) quarterback to win a Super Bowl was Steve Young.
These mobile, running quarterbacks who can pass just aren’t that common. Teams have long experimented with mobile quarterbacks, but they have rarely been given starting jobs. The Denver Broncos couldn’t wait to dump Tim Tebow despite the fact that he won a playoff game.
Mobile quarterbacks are all the rage, but we would be wise to remember that many have not been successful in the past.
The Coin Flip
Quarterback is the most important position, and losing a quarterback for even a couple of games can be extremely damaging. If that quarterback is a good passer, he’s also not easily replaced by a backup. Any coach letting his quarterback run plays an unnecessary game of chicken.
The Washington Redskins played that game and eventually lost when Griffin was hobbled in the playoffs. The injury risk increases the more times a quarterback runs the ball, so it’s a coin flip each and every time he does.
Every flip of the coin has the same set of odds, but the odds of getting heads 100 times in a row are extremely small. That’s like a mobile quarterback running the ball 100 times a year and not getting hurt. Eventually, an injury will happen.
Based on the NFL’s recently released data, the injury rate was 5.3 per game on Saturday, Sunday and Monday and 5.2 per game on Thursday. At an average of 64.2 plays per game (2012’s average), there would be roughly an 8.3 percent chance of injury on any given play or a 0.4 percent chance per player per play (22 players on the field at any given time).
The injury risk seems small on a per-play basis, but there comes a point when coaches are playing with fire. The injury risk obviously varies by position and play type. If the injury risk to a quarterback running the ball is just one percent per rush, he would have a very good chance of being injured on 100 rushes.
A big part of the reason mobile quarterbacks haven’t been able to be consistent winners is that they get hurt. Teams put their seasons on the line by putting the quarterback in harm’s way and wasting valuable practice time that they could be using to further develop passing skills.
Rate of Return
What do teams really get out of a mobile quarterback?
The simple answer is that they force the defense to account for the quarterback in the running game, but there is an ugly truth here that no one wants to acknowledge. Most of the good mobile quarterbacks get more yards per pass attempt than they do per rush attempt.
Roughly speaking, teams use their quarterbacks to try to be more productive in the running game and put the quarterback at risk. The teams would probably be better off just letting those quarterbacks throw the ball.
Griffin, Kaepernick and Wilson all gained significantly more yards per pass attempt than rush attempt in 2012. Wilson can get 2.7 more yards per pass play than run play, so why have him run it when Marshawn Lynch can average at least four yards per carry?
In theory, the Seahawks got more rushing yards out of Lynch because Wilson was a threat to run, but the difference on a per-carry basis is just 330 yards when compared to Lynch’s career average prior to Wilson’s arrival (4.0 yards per carry).
If every Wilson run was a pass at his average of 7.9 yards per pass attempt, he would have gained an additional 743 yards of passing and lost his 489 rushing yards. Roughly speaking, the Seahawks were subjecting Wilson to greater injury risk for about five yards per game in total offense.
If those plays had been Lynch runs instead, the net loss would be about 7.1 yards per game. The Seahawks just aren’t gaining significantly more yards because Wilson runs the ball because he is so good throwing the ball.
Even if Wilson’s yards per pass attempt dropped significantly (as it likely would), the Seahawks lose maybe 10 more yards of offense per game. If defenses adjust and the running game isn’t as productive, there’s a legitimate chance that there’s absolutely no benefit to having a running quarterback.
The rate of return on runs by a mobile quarterback is just another reason that they haven’t been successful. If a quarterback is running the ball a lot, there’s a good chance that the quarterback isn’t a capable passer. If the quarterback is a capable passer, there’s a good chance that the team is better off throwing the ball.
Are Times Changing?
Of the 21 quarterbacks to rush for more than 400 yards in a season since 1978, eight have done so more than once. Of those eight quarterbacks, six have won more games than they have lost in their careers. The only two quarterbacks with losing records are Cam Newton and Daunte Culpepper.
Of all the mobile quarterbacks to rush for 400 yards in a season more than once, only Young has a career passer rating over 90.0. Young is also the only one to win a Super Bowl, but he didn’t rush for over 400 yards in his championship season.
Are Griffin, Kaepernick and Wilson changing the game? After all, Kaepernick became the first quarterback to rush for over 400 yards in a season and appear in a Super Bowl in the same season. With Griffin and Wilson knocking on the door, another appearance by a mobile quarterback in the Super Bowl could follow.
There appears to be no indication that these teams will force their quarterbacks to become pocket passers, nor should they. However, if defenses adjust to the read-option, these quarterbacks will be forced to use their arms to hurt defenses.
Like Young, the ultimate success of these mobile quarterbacks is tied to their ability to throw the ball. We aren’t seeing any type of significant change to the game, because mobile quarterbacks are still struggling around the league.
Vick and Newton are prime examples of mobile quarterbacks that struggle to win games. Terrelle Pryor has been buried on the depth chart in Oakland, and Tebow is without a job. Mobile quarterbacks have to bring something more to the table than just their ability to run to even win a starting job.
Mobile quarterbacks have struggled because not enough of them have been good passers. The running ability is great, but the NFL is a passing league. Mobile quarterbacks are the rage, but that’s only because there were three who could also pass the ball in 2012.
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