What happened to the athletic quarterback revolution?
Quarterbacks were supposed to shred NFL defenses on the ground in 2013, rending them asunder with clever rushing plays and lethal play action.
Players like Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III were supposed to complete the fleet-footed quarterback coup they started in 2012. Players from Michael Vick to Alex Smith were supposed to pick up torches and follow their lead, as college offensive innovators like Oregon's Chip Kelly and Nevada's Chris Ault joined the pro ranks.
Halfway through the 2013 season, Peyton Manning is still the undisputed king of quarterbacks. Kaepernick is far off of his red-hot 2012 pace. Griffin started the season with his rehabbed knee nowhere near full strength; he still hasn't recovered his best form. Wilson looks like the exact same player he was at Wisconsin.
Vick and Smith got off to fast starts, but Vick's mounting injuries led Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman to declare his career as a star quarterback over; Smith's best trait is merely that he doesn't undo what his terrifying defense does.
For the umpteenth time since Fran Tarkenton, the mobile quarterback revolution has failed; the pocket passer reigns on.
There's no question that a quarterback who's a threat to gain yards on the ground makes life incredibly hard on defenses. Is deploying that threat self-defeating? Were all of the dusty old football fuddy-duddies who pooh-poohed the zone read with "You're gonna get your quarterback killed" actually right?
Is quarterback mobility more of a curse than a blessing?
The False Dawn of a New Era...Again
Every time a dual-threat quarterback makes hay in the NFL, the football-watching world gets all giddy and pronounces him the herald of a bold new era of football.
The truth is, running quarterbacks are nothing new.
Back in the early 1900s, Carlisle Indian Industrial School head coach Pop Warner schemed up the single-wing offense to maximize the talents of his superstar player, Jim Thorpe. Not only could Thorpe throw a nice spiral, but he was such an incredible athlete that he went on to win Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912.
The single wing took the football world by storm, becoming the standard at all levels for decades. Then, in 1940, George Halas' T-formation (and talented passer Sid Luckman) ripped through pro football; his Chicago Bears beat Washington 73-0 in the 1940 NFL championship game.
Ever since, having a pass-first quarterback under center has been the dominant way to win in the NFL.
But running quarterbacks never really went away. In fact, I've never known an NFL where there hasn't been at least one starting quarterback with scary-fast wheels and a big league arm (hello, Randall Cunningham).
Whether they get hurt, fail to polish their passing skills and wash out, achieve success or have a late-career transformation into a pocket passer, the one thing athletic quarterbacks never do is usher in a new era of football where NFL teams are putting college kick returners under center.
But for whatever reason, every couple of years a fast quarterback takes the league by storm, and everyone pretends they've never seen anything like him before.
It's a fundamental truth of football: A quarterback who forces defenses to respect his threat to run is a quarterback who has more receivers open—and more-open receivers. Pop Warner knew it, and Chip Kelly knows it too.
High school and college coaches across America know it—and there's the rub.
The Perpetual Project Quarterback
We can't pretend there isn't a racial component to this problem. As I wrote last year, a shockingly large percentage of African-American quarterbacks aren't taught mechanics.
Well before high school, youth coaches identify big, fast African-American kids and play them at quarterback—often in a system designed to take advantage of their athleticism, not develop the child's football ability.
The ones who grow into top varsity players get scouted as "dual-threat quarterbacks" by the recruiting-industrial complex and play for college coaches who want to use them in similar roles.
As Trae Thompson wrote for SB Nation, Matthew Stafford was carefully groomed to start as a sophomore for his elite Dallas-area varsity high school team. Meanwhile, Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group he "never really knew how to throw a football" until he hired a personal quarterback coach this past offseason.
Yes, Terrelle Pryor: A 6'4", 233-pound, cannon-armed, former No. 1 overall high school recruit, former multiyear BCS-power-program-starting quarterback entering his third year in the NFL, and nobody bothered to teach him how to throw a damned football until he went out and hired a passing coach himself.
Is it any wonder that "athletic" quarterbacks trust their instincts to run over their training to pass? Is it any wonder that so few make the successful transition, as Cunningham did, to effective pocket passer?
Worse yet, NFL coaches are no less tempted to make use of their dual-threat quarterbacks as athletic weapons. Griffin's knee didn't just get hurt, Washington head coach Mike Shanahan let him gimp around on a visibly injured leg in their 2012 playoff game. Shanahan even called zone reads, putting Griffin in the line of fire—and it wasn't long until Griffin got burned.
Stafford's only 16 months older than Pryor, but he already has 15,424 career passing yards. Pryor's just now getting a chance to play—and even then, only because he surprisingly outplayed pocket passers like journeyman backup Matt Flynn and fourth-round rookie Tyler Wilson in preseason.
Pryor was concussed in his third start and missed what would have been his fourth.
You'll Put Your Eye Out!
This isn't just a case of A Christmas Story-style nagging about putting your quarterback in harm's way. By design, the zone read protects the quarterback; if there's a defender to cream the quarterback, he simply lets the running back take the ball.
Even pocket passers get injured; in his first two seasons, Stafford had a bad habit of getting his throwing shoulder crushed by blindsiding defensive linemen.
Russell Wilson seems to be the exception to the across-the-board regression of last season's hot mobile quarterbacks—but let's take a closer look.
He looks exactly the same in 2013 as he did in 2012. He's averaging 7.9 yards per attempt just as he did in 2012. His NFL passer efficiency rating is 99.0 so far; it was 100.0 in 2012.
Wilson's completion rate (61.0 percent), touchdown rate (6.3 percent) and interception rate (2.0 percent) are all slightly down from 2012 (64.1 percent, 6.6 percent and 2.5 percent)—but overall, he's the same player.
What's going on? What makes Wilson's game injury- and regression-proof?
The Evolution of the Game
Wilson does most of his running east to west. He's not a zone-read weapon or a two-read-and-take-off sprinter. He's not a tailback with an arm, but an instinctual quarterback in the Tarkenton mold.
Pete Carroll doesn't have to balance Wilson's ability to run with his health; Wilson generally doesn't gain yards on the ground unless he's run entirely away from the defense. Carroll's challenge is to speed up Wilson's in-pocket decision-making so he can execute the offense as intended.
Cam Newton is another zone-read quarterback of 2012—and he's not only holding steady, he's making great progress as a passer. Newton's completing 64.9 percent of his passes, up five full percentage points from a career average of 59.9. His touchdown rate is 5.9 percent, up from a career average of 4.3 percent. His interception rate is at 2.5 percent, down from a career average of 2.8 percent.
So far this season, Newton's only run 50 times for 229 yards and three touchdowns; well below the pace of his first two seasons in all three statistics. He's also running for just 4.6 yards per carry—again, well below the 5.8 YPC and 5.6 YPC he averaged in 2012 and 2011. He's running less for fewer yards and becoming a more effective, efficient passer.
This isn't a coincidence. Pro football has evolved into a passing game. There's simply much more upside to throwing, and today's modern offenses demand a quarterback who excels at breaking down defenses and delivering an accurate ball.
It's hard for someone whose bosses have never taught him how to do his job, to do his job.
It's hard for someone who's spent their entire career—really, their entire life—being told their speed and agility are their meal ticket to put them on the back burner.
It's hard to be a consistent, effective, efficient NFL quarterback when you're blessed, or cursed, with athletic talent.