Mobile Quarterbacks Redefining the Position

Sam Monson@@SamMonsonContributor IJuly 9, 2012

HOUSTON - DECEMBER 18:  Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers  avoids a tackle from Connor Barwin #98 of the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Every few years, we seem to come back to this debate about mobile quarterbacks redefining the position in the NFL.

Players come along with unique physical attributes that get everybody excited about a new way of playing, but then they never quite hoist that Lombardi Trophy and the proponents of the pocket passer rejoice, being proven right once again.

Maybe however that’s not quite true. When all is said and done there are only ever a couple of these athletic freak quarterbacks in the league at any one time, and only one team per season comes away from things in a shower of ticker tape.

It is so hard to win a Super Bowl in the NFL that many all-time great players never got a shot. Some got there once, came up short and never came close again.

Maybe you need an elite quarterback to win in today’s NFL, but simply having one doesn’t dictate that you will end up with a championship.

So just because these mobile quarterbacks never got over that final hump, does it mean that they can’t? Does it mean that they can bring an extra dimension to the game?

I don’t think so.

A decade ago we were talking about Michael Vick and Daunte Culpepper as unique athlete quarterbacks with the potential to change the game.

Vick was a legitimate HB/WR athlete with a cannon for an arm and the ability to make people miss that terrified a defense. He was the NFL equivalent of high school that have its best athlete playing quarterback, and he was such a good athlete that he made it work at this level.

That is extremely rare. The problem is that Vick never quite developed his passing enough to truly dominate. The leaps he has taken since joining Andy Reid in Philadelphia have been impressive.

He was always an electrifying athlete, but now he’s making impressive mental plays and throws that typical pocket passers make. He uses his athleticism more as an accent to his game than as its focal point.

Culpepper was a different breed of passer. He was a 265-pound quarterback that could bounce off hits from defenders, stiff-arm linebackers to the ground and take off running to pick up first downs when things broke down.

Culpepper was supremely accurate as a passer, and had one of the best deep balls you’ll ever see, using it to hook up time and time again with Randy Moss, one of the best deep threats you’ll ever see. The two were a perfect match in that regard.

Culpepper was developing into a spectacular quarterback, one who was able to beat you passing and take off running when you had everything covered up.

In 2004, he put together one of the best quarterback seasons in history (largely without Randy Moss) before his offensive line fell to pieces in 2005 and he suffered a catastrophic knee injury while running. He was never the same player after that, and he goes down as a player whose career was cut short by a major injury.

The new Vick and Culpepper players we are talking about today are players like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III.

Griffin looks a lot like Michael Vick, except he is more of a polished passer coming into the league, and may be keener to pass first and run second.

He is going to an offense in Washington that is well versed in making the most of athletic quarterbacks and getting them moving without running for their lives in an uncontrolled manner. This could give RG3 the chance to exceed Vick’s career if he shows development in that system.

Like Vick, RG3 has athleticism that defenses can’t expect to match up front. He’s a running back with the ability to cock his arm and rifle a ball 60 yards downfield. That forces teams to potentially change the way they play defense.

Linebackers can’t simply sit back in shallow zones and play pass, they have to tighten up and contain a quarterback who is more athletic than they are and capable of breaking loose at any time. That’s not easy to do and scares defenders like nothing else in the game.

Cam Newton is a player I undersold coming out of college. I watched him at Auburn rely on being bigger, faster and stronger than the people he was running at. I figured that wouldn’t translate to the NFL where everybody is a great athlete, but even at this level he is an athletic freak that teams can’t deal with.

In an NFL strength and conditioning program, he has added all kinds of muscle and maintained his speed and athleticism, meaning he is now a 6’5, 255lb+ quarterback with defensive back speed.

You’ll see defensive backs take terrible angles to try and tackle Newton because he moves at an entirely different speed to how somebody of that size should move. They set off expecting him to be in one place, and he’s so fast he’s long past that point by the time they get there.

He has a defensive end’s body size, but he runs like a safety, and no matter how much you prepare for that, there’s only so much you can do.

Newton is such an athlete that running will always be a large part of his game, and a part designed far more than other mobile quarterbacks.

He’s big and strong enough that the Panthers will call his number on option plays and not simply allow him to take off as a last resort. This puts enormous stress on a defense that already had its hands full just trying to stop the run from running backs.

What will define Newton’s ceiling, however, is how much he can develop as a passer. He put up huge numbers as a rookie, but he was helped out a lot by Steve Smith enjoying a rejuvenated run of form with someone capable throwing him the football, and never quite managed to iron out the occasional wild and wayward throw in his game.

If he can take strides forwards in his reads and his accuracy, then he becomes a force that is virtually impossible to stop. The spread offense works by spreading out a defense and expecting them to cover as much ground as possible.

Cam Newton can force a defense on his own to try and cover more ground than a spread offense has to, because they have to worry about him running at all times as well.

Every few years, we end up talking about mobile quarterbacks that have the ability to change the game and redefine the position. So far, those players have yet to win a Super Bowl and force home that change, but that doesn’t mean they can’t.

Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton have the kind of athleticism that completely changes a defense by their very presence, and both have the ability to develop into players that can hold up the passing end of the bargain as well.

Only one team wins the big one each season, but we’re now going to get a run of seasons with these two trying to make that happen. If one of them does, we’re going to see a lot of teams looking for an athlete with that X-factor to play quarterback, to redefine the position in their offense as well.


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