NFL Quarterbacks: The Pocket Passer Is An Endangered Species

By Anthony King
January 16, 2013 10:10 am
1,747 Views 11 Comments

Reporters asked the head coach who he would play in place of the starting quarterback with the torn rotator cuff. The coach looked dumbfounded as he replied, “What do you mean? Of course he’s still going to start, he doesn’t need a rotator cuff to run the read-option 50 times a game.”

This terrible joke has been brought to you by the nightmarish hellscape that could be the NFL’s future.

In years past, making it in the NFL as a running quarterback generally meant you would have to change positions. Antwaan Randle El did it for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they shifted him to wide receiver. Former Penn State QB, Michael Robinson, packed on 40 pounds to play fullback for the Seattle Seahawks. Even past Heisman winners, such as Eric Crouch, Charlie Ward and Troy Smith found there was no place for their style of play in the NFL – but it appears now there is.

Thanks to the quick success this season of the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, both of whom handed the reins of their offenses to unconventional quarterbacks, a frightening shift may occur whereby other NFL franchises will start to copy the formulas of these two immediate playoff teams?

Looking back just a few seasons, to 2009, Michael Vick was the only unconventional quarterback leading an NFL team. Fast forward to 2012, and there are now six. Big deal right, six out of 32 teams is still just a microcosm of the league – which is true – until we look at the top players who will be coming out of the college ranks next.

Running quarterback, Johnny Manziel, became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman trophy, and while he still has at least two seasons left in school, he just goes to highlight the kind of shift the game is in the midst of making. The college and pro games had never been more dissimilar in recent years, yet it is actually the NFL who seems to be adopting more elements from college, instead of the other way around.

The read-option was a play no one ever tried in the NFL, because conventional wisdom said it was just a college gimmick with no chance for success against the fast, professional defenses in the NFL. Yet somehow, this play has finally permeated the NFL game, and its early effectiveness could signal a dangerous sign of things to come.   

Last Three Heisman Trophy Winners

2012 Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

2011 Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor

2010 Cam Newton, QB, Auburn

Add Tim Tebow and Troy Smith’s names to the mix and we see that five of the last seven Heisman trophies have gone to running quarterbacks. This just goes to underscore the type of players the college game is starting to consistently produce. In 2012, seven quarterbacks rushed for over 1,000 yards in college football – only three QBs amassed the same feat in 2011.

West Virginia’s QB, Geno Smith, looks to be the next in line from a stocked stable of running quarterbacks set to emerge from the college game. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, North Illinois’ Jordan Lynch and Kansas State’s Collin Klein are some of the other names sure to pepper the NFL landscape in the coming years as well.

So, while there are only six unconventional quarterbacks leading offenses right now, in a year or two, we could see a drastic shift in how the NFL game is played. Going from one running quarterback in 2009, all the way to potentially half of the league in just a three or four year stretch is not just a trend, but more accurately, it may usher in a systematic change to how the NFL game is played.

Big time college programs, such as the University of Michigan, are no longer interested in cultivating the Tom Brady’s of the game. For a school that once prided themselves on a “three yards in a cloud of dust” style of offense, even their stodgy old traditions have been dusted off to make way for a more open offensive attack with the likes of Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner as their quarterbacks.

Some of the blame has to go to the culture of the “business” of college football. For college coaches who have to win now to keep the tentative grips they have on their own jobs, the “best athletes” are generally the ones who are able to make the shift from high school to college most swiftly. This means, instead of schools looking for the pro-style project they can mold into the pure pocket passer who can read coverages and quickly run through his progressions, we get the fast athlete freshman who can also throw a little being asked to take over premiere college programs immediately.


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2 years ago
Anthony-another thought provoking article. We might see some of those guys move on in the PO's in the future, but even this year it could still boil down to 2 pocket passers in the S.B. And if Kaep. gets there, he could have the better day passing in the S.B. He has a rocket arm. Last Sunday, if that would have been Minn. instead of Atl., do you honestly think Webb and Peterson could have pulled that game out against Seattle? I don't. A running QB better also be a very good passer.
2 years ago

Kaepernick definitely has the arm to go with the running ability, but my concern is the possible slippery slope these running quarterbacks could lead to. If teams start thinking they need a running quarterback to compete, then we will have to wade through 50 bad one to find that one with the Colin Kaepernick-like skill set.

The S.B. is safe this year, but who are the guys that are coming after Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's careers are over? I'm worried about what the game will look like in 5 to 10 years.

It is my opinion that the college game has become much more diluted in terms of talent at the quarterback spot. I just don't want to see the same thing happen at the pro level and find a game that sees the Denard Robinson's playing quarterback -- he makes Tim Tebow look like Joe Montana throwing the ball.
2 years ago
We have seen this trend come and go. When McNabb and Vick were young in the league there were theories that the QB position would never be the same, and the mobile QB phased out and now is back again in 2012. Show me a Super Bowl winning mobile QB, in fact in this years final 4 there is only one mobile QB and he benefits from ground game and smash defense. The reason why guys like Crouch and others had to change position is because the were mobile but not true QB's. Example is Tebow, who is mobile, but not a NFL caliber QB. I will give you this, that the future of NFL QB's is given to those who have an arm and good judgement, who can also throw from the pocket with consistency but also is able to make a play when needed from his feet. Aaron Rodger is a wonderful example of this.
2 years ago
I don't see most teams going this road. Scrambling QB's who run every other play don't last long...success dwindles quickly and what team wants to get a new QB every few years over and over? I think if i was a GM in today's game I'd be very careful drafting a player to build around that may only last a few years. These guys are great when they're 100% healthy and young. But, as soon as they lose a step via injury or age...they're horrible and easy targets. RG3, Cam Newton and Michael Vick are all easy most recent examples. They're totally different players when they lose a step and not nearly as effective. I mean, name me one single player like that....that's been very productive for mulitple combined years? I just don't think you bring a guy like that in and build a team around them when they're one scramble away from being a totally differnt player and you're screwed. It's a great gimmick and my get someone a quick and easy superbowl. But, i don't see a player like that winning mulitple superbowls and lasting 10 to 15 years and being productive at a high level like your typical pocket passing QB. Everyone gets excited on these guys and thinks they're the greatest thing since sliced bread when they come out of college. I have 2 words for you on that...Vince Young.
2 years ago

Very good points. I agree with basically everything you said, but it's hard to deny that this is the type of player the college game is producing now. Will NFL teams have a choice of who they can go with one day when the top 15 quarterbacks to choose from are all of the running variety? The college game isn't developing pocket passers anymore. It seems NFL teams may have to start teaching athletes how to be quarterbacks after they draft them, instead of getting a fully developed passer.
2 years ago

Good point. I agree we are seeing much more scrambling style QB's in the college game. But, i don't think too many NFL teams are just going to automatically draft these guys. I think they will develop other resources or you will see QB's being drafted in the 5th, 6th and 7th rounds. Because, there's been way too many of them fail for teams to just take one, because nobody else is avaialble. They'll go with the best player available mentality...not just because they play QB. If I'm a GM, even if i need a QB I wait until the later rounds if he can't throw the rock and his primary skill set to be successful is scramble.
2 years ago

I believe your answer to Rich is looking it it the wrong way. The biggest, most successful college programs will always produce the kind of players the NFL wants, not the other way around.

Colleges who can't compete heads up with Alabama, Michigan, etc. will continue to produce running type QB's because it makes them more competitive with those schools. It gives them a chance to win they didn't normally have.

But, schools who recruit kids expected to play in the NFL one day will always go for what the NFL wants, not the other way around.

Sure, there will be NFL teams who try read / option type offenses and some will even adopt them, just like it was with the "run and shoot" offense.

But, the risk for injury is too high in that offense. That is what will keep drop back passers the norm in the NFL for now.

Also, the NFL will always have the ability to get drop back passers from college (more some years than others) as long as they want them. The NFL pays the big bucks to the right athletes.

And he (or she) who pays makes the rules...
2 years ago

Yeah, but we are talking about the major programs already. Cam Newton went to Auburn, Tim Tebow to Florida, Michigan just had Denard Robinson. Texas A&M has Manziel. Texas had Vince Young. If it were just a small school syndrome, like Army's qb rushing for 1,000 because of the offense they run it would be one thing, but this is now becoming a nationwide trend in college.
2 years ago

I do agree, it is a trend in college-and I agree, it is growing. But, there will be college schools who primarily utilize a drop back passer as long as there is a demand for them in the NFL.

Teams like Alabama, Michigan (Brady Hoke stayed with Robinson because he was the best the team had. He recruits drop back passers), South Carolina under Spurrier, Georgia under Richt, USC, UCLA and others, are all primarily drop back pass offenses.

Poor Tim Tebow was all world in college and now looks to be headed to the CFL. Vince Young bombed in the NFL and Denard Robinson isn't big enough to take the pounding there, either.

Of the ones mentioned, Cam Newton is doing best. But Carolina lives on the edge every play. When he gets hurt, they will be in big trouble.

I agree with all your points in how many teams are trying it, along with the fact there has been some success. But until a team wins a Super Bowl or two with a running QB, I think the majority of the NFL will stay drop back.

Have a great day!
2 years ago
Thanks for the article. I enjoyed the read.

Please read my recent article to see why I think it will go just the opposite. Unless, of course, the NFL decides to change the rules and totally outlaw tackling the quarterback:

Have a great day!
2 years ago
It's a simple matter of more available tools. Tarkenton lasted what, 18 years? Vick and RGIII are or were stupid macho men. Newton, Kaepernick and Wilson don't take thebig hits. Pocket QB's who can't run are on a short list to mothballs. Johnny Football has inspired a lot of young kids, just watch Texas HS football next season.

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