5 Wide: The Evolution Of The Quarterback

Curt HoggCorrespondent IIDecember 24, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - DECEMBER 13:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts gives instructions to his team at the line of scrimmage  during the NFL game against the Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 13, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts won 26-18.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Jack makes the pre-snap read. Outside ‘backers are blitzing. He signals for a hard count. Hut one. He calls for slide protection and motions for the tight end to pick up the blitz in the backfield. Hut two. Defense still hasn’t jumped. Hut three . Jack checks his first option. Covered.

One Mississippi.

Jack looks hard at the quick slant, but the MIKE drops back into coverage.

Two Mississippi.

Jack looks down the seam for option number three. Double coverage. Nobody’s open.

Three Mississippi.

Jack goes through his reads again. He looks the safety away, and then sees his first option open. Jack prepares to throw, but feels the WILL breathing down his neck at that moment. Jack tucks the ball away.

Four Mississippi. Run.

Jack steps up and runs. Get the first down. Avoid a big hit . Jack slides feet-first after a gain of eleven. First down. Play successful.

No, 80,000 people don't cheer jubilantly at this occasion. No, big, sweaty men don’t help pick him off of the turf. No, there isn’t even any turf.

No, Jack isn’t an NFL quarterback. He isn’t even semi-pro or college. Not even high school.

Jack is a tall, slender, 12 year-old attending one of the many quarterback camps held for “developing” players.

There aren’t any camps held solely for middle-school lineman or backs or receivers or defensive backs or linebackers. The only position for which summer camps are held for middle schoolers learning the position is quarterback.

And these camps are in-depth. We’re talking the advanced skills of the game, like reading the defense, calling audibles, going through reads, and avoiding pressure. The pros in the 40’s and 50’s didn’t even have some of these concepts down. They simply did not need them.

The game of football was completely different back in the days prior to man landing on the moon or when disco was “hip”. Championships centered on an elite power-running game with a bone-crushing defense.

But as the game has grown, and interest and participation in it have increased, as well, the role of the quarterback has changed drastically, now to the point where the quarterback is the most important player on each team.

Prior to 1980, only one person had passed for 4,000 yards (Joe Namath, 1967). Since then, it has been accomplished 73 times. There is no denying that the emphasis that has been put on the quarterback has completely changed the game.

The quarterback is the most important player on the field nowadays, in high school, college, or the pros. The offense goes as the quarterback does, and, in the case of the pros, he is the franchise player.

Without a good QB, a team will struggle to have success in any level. Not only is it the most important position, but also it is the most complex. It takes a good mind to pick apart a defense. But this position was not always like it is now.

Pre-Modern Era

They say Sammy Baugh revolutionized the passing game.

True? Somewhat.

Prior to 1950, teams in the NFL passed only on third down. Bruising tailbacks ran behind bruising fullbacks—who were sometimes the main rushers themselves—and met bruising linebackers. They did this without the amenities of huge, padded helmets, thick shoulders pads, and yards of tape.

The shotgun hadn’t even been introduced. Receivers, then called ends, lined up next to tight ends and tackles in a three-point stance.

There were no different packages of players. Teams didn’t swap personnel groups each play to confuse the defense. They mainly used the Power T, Single Wing, Notre Dame Box, and Pro Set. Each of these formations revolved around the run.

If you haven’t gotten the point yet, the running game and hard-nosed defense won, and a passing game helped.

The role of the QB was simple. Get the snap and hand the ball off and, occasionally, throw to the open man. No complicated play calling or anything along those lines. Teams didn’t call 30 passing plays per game. There weren’t any of the modern-day shootouts. Nowadays, a 7-6 final score translates to “boring, no-offensive” game. Those scores were common throughout and before the 50’s.

Back to Baugh. His name stands out as the only iconic quarterback of the pre-modern era. He was the “big-time passer” of his time, though many thought that title would go to Davey O’ Brien when he came out TCU after winning the Heisman. Baugh won two NFL titles with the Washington Redskins. He finished his career with 21,886 yards, 187 touchdowns, and a 72.2 passer rating. He threw 203 interceptions, which are 16 more interceptions than touchdowns in sixteen NFL season. And those numbers belonged to the premier quarterback of his era.

To put into perspective how much the role of the quarterback has changed, his career passing yard total is 77th on the all-time list, behind guys like Marc Bulger, Jon Kitna, Lynn Dickey, and Chris Chandler.

After Baugh’s time in the league ended, a man by the name of Johnny Unitas took grasp of the NFL with the Baltimore Colts. His triumphant overtime victory in the 1958 NFL Title Game (the “Greatest Game Ever Played”) placed him on a pedestal and secured his place in the all-time greats. He ranks 10th on the all-time passing yards list and seventh in touchdowns. Unitas made eight consecutive Pro Bowls and paved the way for star quarterbacks today.

From 1932 (the first year touchdowns were kept as a stat) to 1959, only one time did a player pass for 30 touchdowns. Before 1960, nobody had ever passed for 3,000 yards in one season.

The 1960’s and 70’s

The Green Bay Packers were, without a doubt, the “Team of the 60’s”.

And, despite possessing Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr, they ran themselves to success. Legendary coach Vince Lombardi’s “Power Sweep” revolutionized the art of the outside run.

The Power Sweep consisted of two linemen pulling to block for Paul Hornung, who would “run where they ain’t”. With the power sweep, the Packers ran their way to two Super Bowl titles in the game’s first two years and three NFL championships.

In this decade, however, quarterback numbers soared, and much of that can be attributed to Johnny Unitas and the Colts. The previously mentioned NFL Championship Game of 1958 displayed his skills and promoted coaches to instill the passing game as a valuable part of their offense.

While the powerhouses of the NFL (Green Bay, Chicago, Cleveland, and the Giants) were dominant via their rushing attack, a new league torched defenses through an aerial attack and lit up scoreboards. The AFL (founded in 1959) offered its fans what no NFL team could–a passing explosion.

As Hall of Fame wide out Lance Alworth said to Sports Illustrated, “The NFL does today what we were doing in 1962.”

And if people didn’t like the way teams went about their style, then too bad. Teams ignored the people who said that it wasn’t real football. AFL teams introduced the spread, and no NFL team ran it until the Dallas Cowboys in 1975 with Roger Staubach in the ‘gun.

In 1961, only three teams out of 22 in pro football averaged 28 points per game. All three of which were in the AFL— the Boston Patriots, Houston Oilers, and San Diego Chargers.

No longer were fans adept to watching 7-6 or 10-7 games. Once exposed to offensive struggles, they could not be turned away from them.

While some teams revolved around the pass in the NFL (i.e. Philadelphia, Baltimore), all teams in the AFL did.

One of the effects of a pass-centered game was that rushing statistics were down. In every season but one that the AFL existed (10 years prior to the merger and becoming part of the NFL), the NFL’s leading rusher out-rushed the leader of the AFL.

One of the AFL’s greatest contributions to football was the birth of Joe Willie Namath. The first overall pick of the 1965 AFL Draft out of Alabama, Namath immediately became a star. The charismatic, savvy quarterback led the league in passing in just his second year.

And in 1968, Namath boldly guaranteed a New York Jets upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Severe underdogs, the Jets pulled out a win and it was then and there that the quarterback was given appeal. Never before had the quarterback been cast as popular and bold with the media. Now, the media spotlight is primarily on them, thanks to  Joe Namath.

In the 70’s, teams won championships with their quarterbacks. Every Super Bowl champion — Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Oakland — were each led by an elite quarterback. The Raiders’ Ken Stabler is the only one of the group to not be enshrined in Canton. Each of these teams showed all of football that you couldn’t win without a good quarterback.The days of winning solely on running the ball and defense were over.

The Cowboys were the first NFL team to run the spread offense, and ran it with perfection. With former Heisman winner Roger Staubach, coach Tom Landry implemented the spread, though different than that of today’s game. There were no five-wide sets, but they did air it out.

Staubach finished fourth in the league in pass attempts and third in yards. With the new style of offense, Dallas reached the Super Bowl before falling to the Steel Curtain of the Steelers. Though the Cowboys fell short of their second Super Bowl victory of the decade (they eventually accomplished that feat), they showed the league what a pass-oriented offense could do.

Under the spread, Staubach’s role as a quarterback changed. He had to make pre-snap reads and occasionally call a play at the line of scrimmage and relay it to his team. By 1977, Dallas had the spread down pat. Staubach finished third in the league in attempts, completions, touchdowns, and yards.

Other teams caught on. The Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Colts, for example, became pass-heavy. Dallas receiver Drew Pearson led the NFL in receiving yards with 870. The Cowboys reached the Super Bowl again, this team winning their second title.

Prior to 1978, only twice had a quarterback thrown 500 passes in a season. In ’78 and ’79, Frank Tarkenton of Minnesota and Steve DeBerg of San Francisco, respectively, attempted over that total. In fact, in 1979, an influx of five quarterbacks attempted 500 passes. QB’s were being relied on more than ever before and coaches trusted them enough to allow more than thirty passes a game regularly.

Included in this group was San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts. Fouts was the leader of “Air Coryell”, the nickname given to the team’s passing assault, named after coach Don Coryell. Their Chargers' offense would soon revolutionize the game.


The 1980’s and 1990’s

The decade of the 80’s changed the role of the quarterback more than any other. From Air Coryell to Marino to Montana to Elway’s comebacks, the events of the decade put a new meaning to the quarterback. Nearly every team relied just as much, if not more, on the passing game as the rushing attack.

Air Coryell was coach Don Coryell’s adaptation of the West Coast offense. He used this offense with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chargers. In it, receivers and tight ends received their routes by a special code system that consisted of three digit numbers.

This type of communication was one of the first methods that required little memorization and in which a quarterback could yell out a formation and numbers at the line of scrimmage. It allowed the quarterback to easily call hot routes at the line, a new skill at the time.

In 1980, Fouts led the NFL attempts, completions, yards, and was second in touchdowns. He was second in the AFC in passer rating. His 589 pass attempts were the most ever in a single season at the time. Each year from 1979-’81, Fouts broke the previous record for passing yards in a single season and, in the latter two of those seasons, breaking his previous record.

In 1982, the right-handed thrower from Oregon was on pace to throw for 5,125 yards, which would have broken the previous record for the fourth consecutive season if not for a 57-day strike. If he had stayed on his pace, Fouts would still hold the single-season record for passing yards.

San Diego threw nearly every down. They put up numbers that topple the top passing teams of today’s game. They proved that the NFL was no longer a run-first league. A dominant aerial attack could beat any team. For instance, in three games against the Super Bowl-champion Oakland Raiders, Fouts threw for 1,068 yards, an average of 356 per game. He also threw for six touchdowns in those three games.

The quarterback was the star of each team. The names of the quarterbacks were ones that every average fan could name. Those people could not name the running backs on some or most teams. Teams became synonymous with their quarterbacks, which was new. If your quarterback didn’t have success, than the team wouldn’t either.

In 1984, someone else finally overtook Fouts as the leading passer in the NFL. A second-year quarterback by the name of Daniel Constantine Marino Jr. out-passed Fouts going 362-564,  with 5,084 yards, and 48 touchdowns. He led the league in each of those categories.

His 1984 season is considered one, if not the best, of all time. Marino’s passing yards are the most of all-time and his touchdowns are third. His Dolphins reached the Super Bowl but fell short against the San Francisco 49ers, which had their own legendary quarterback in Joe Montana.

Montana was another quarterback who experienced success under the West Coast offense. He was a star among the many bright young quarterbacks in the NFL. Montana is placed into the all-time greatest quarterback conversation because of his unparalleled four Super Bowl championships. His coach, the legendary late Bill Walsh, ran his own system that brought the 49ers all of those championships in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Unlike Air Coryell, the 49ers were not completely reliant on the pass, but, with a quarterback like Montana, they did what any reasonable team would do, which is beat opponents through the air.

The most famous plays of the 49er’s dynasty were via the pass, ones such as “The Catch” and Montana’s late drive to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, not big runs. In a close game, the quarterback who gave his team the best chances of winning was Joe Montana. He accumulated three Super Bowl MVP trophies.

Though he never once led the league in passing yards, his accuracy, flair for the dramatic, and Super Bowl rings have placed Joe Montana on a pedestal as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.

Denver’s John Elway was another quarterback with a flair for the dramatic. Before his 1997 clutch, game-sealing touchdown drive to beat the Packers in the Super Bowl, he had a game-winning touchdown drive to beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship game.

Down 20-13, Elway led his Broncos all the way down the field for a game-tying touchdown with little time left. In overtime, he drove Denver down to the Cleveland 16 yard line and Rich Karlis nailed a 33-yard field goal to send the Broncos into the Super Bowl.

Elway and Montana continuously excelled in the clutch, driving their teams down the field to set up game tying or winning scores. This is just one large aspect that set them apart from the rest of the quarterbacks in the history of the game. Quarterbacks became field generals, commanding the offense, calling plays, and becoming the leader of the team.


The 1990’s and 2000’s

What the quarterback has become today was set in these two decades. Everything that had occurred in the evolution led up to what became of the quarterback near the turn of the century. Quarterbacks all around the league began putting up astronomical numbers. 

Mere 3,000 passing yard seasons no longer would help win a championship.
The number of Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks has increased exponentially throughout the years. Among players that retired prior to or around 1960, only nine QB’s had been enshrined in Canton, and two of those nine played a combined 13 seasons, a number that would not give any player the lift he needed to became a Hall of Famer nowadays. In that time period, 20 backs were selected for the legendary honor.

None of those quarterbacks ever passed for over 3,000 yards and Baugh and Bobby Layne were the only ones to ever throw 25 touchdowns in a season. Among the average fan, names like Paddy Driscoll, Bob Waterfield, Jimmy Conzelman, and Ace Parker would not be recognized.

Among active quarterbacks today, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are sure-fire Hall of Fame picks. Kurt Warner seems to have a good chance at being selected, and Donovan McNabb will be in that category, too, if he continues to put up his current numbers and possibly win a Super Bowl .

Along with all of the elite veterans, there is a large group of potent young stars in the league with Hall of Fame chances. Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger accumulated for three of the five Super Bowls won prior to Super Bowl XLIV. Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler have all shown what it takes to win games. Each of them has surpassed 4,000 yards in a season and Romo is the eldest among them at 29. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matt Cassell, Matt Schaub, and Matt Stafford are all on the rise to the top of the game.

The top quarterbacks of the last 20 to 25 years have been much more advanced in their style, and this relates to their stats. Good stats and success equals elite status, and more quarterbacks have reached this status in that time period than ever before.

But quarterbacks’ stats don’t just go up through osmosis. There has to a reason behind this. And there is a reason—or more than one.

The spread offense gives QB’s the opportunity to pass the ball in any situation. The college game has become even more quarterback-based. Through the first 51 years of the Heisman, 13 quarterbacks won the award. Since then, 14 have taken home the stiff-arming statue, which may be better fitted in a throwing motion. Teams substitute different packages and switch formations every play, including the shotgun, single back, pistol, I-form, and the Wildcat.

They are trained at an early age—some even before junior high—to develop the skills it takes to succeed at any level. The game is more advanced for a group of 13 year-olds than it was for the pros back in the 20’s and 30’s. Defenses have become more complex and the pass rush has become more intense.

Ever since the career-ending hit Lawrence Taylor placed on Joe Theismann, teams have placed an emphasis on a sturdy left tackle to prevent the “blind side” for right-handers and vice-versa for lefties. The quarterback has to pick up any blitzers and relay that to the line or backs, or he may become the next Theismann, and not in a good way.

Quarterbacks are the center of attention for the media, though on some teams, loudmouth receivers share that role. Their every move is scrutinized. When Brett Favre went through his entire retirement saga, every sports channel was fixated on his decision. No other player at another position would receive that kind of attention.

When it comes down to it, the final product of the evolution of the quarterback is today’s prototypical QB. In each season since 1990, at least one person has attempted over 500 passes, completed at least 310 of them, and thrown at least 25 touchdowns. In that time period, in every season except for one there has been a 4,000-yard passer. These numbers further exemplify the emphasis that has been put on the quarterback.

The quarterback has become, without a doubt, the most important member of each team, and he determines his team’s success. People like Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana all revolutionized what it takes to be a quarterback in the top league in the NFL. Playing quarterback in the NFL is one of the toughest tasks to do in all of sports, and that is why so much rides on the QB’s shoulders.

And it all comes down to the basics. Not once has the clock in the quarterback’s head been mentioned. Because, as Jack and his fellow campers learned, you cannot take a sack. After a short break, Jack is back in the ‘gun with five wide. The ball is snapped.

The imaginary clock begins.

One Mississippi.


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