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.
So what does this mean for the game’s future? Are Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the last vestiges of a dying breed of quarterback who one day dreamed of growing up to be Joe Montana? Instead of running through scenarios in the backyard where they make the perfect pass to Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone, are kids now just imagining juking out two defenders to run for the game-winning score?
This season even saw a top five passer, Alex Smith, being benched in favor of the unconventional style of Colin Kaepernick. All Smith did was throw 12 touchdowns to only five interceptions, have a completion percentage of 69.3, rack up a passer rating of 104.1 and lead his team to a division-leading 6-2 record. If this were the corporate world, Smith might have a very strong wrongful termination case to levy against the San Francisco 49ers.
Yet, the Niners decided to go with the unproven Kaepernick and adapt their offense to incorporate his strengths as a running quarterback. You can’t argue with the early success of Kaepernick so far, but will the pedestal that these running quarterbacks are being put on actually hurt the NFL product down the line?
Robert Griffin III took home the Rookie of the Year award over Andrew Luck, but examining the two as pure passers of the football, an alarming philosophical change in offenses takes shape. The Washington Redskins have adapted their offense to fit RG3’s skill set, which did prove to earn them a post-season berth, yet many of his throws could fall firmly into the category of dump-off passes.
The West-coast style of system which sees a lot of screen passes and short throws that turn into 10-yard pass completions on the stat sheet may make people believe some of these quarterbacks are better at doing certain things than they really are.
If one needed a precise, 15-yard out-route thrown toward the sidelines, I can’t imagine RG3, Russell Wilson or Cam Newton would be the quarterbacks high on the list for such a throw. Yet, Griffin’s 20 touchdowns to only five interceptions seems to indicate that this type of throw could be in just as much danger as the pocket-passer who used to throw them.
How will offenses change in the coming years? Will the game devolve to be played closer to the line-of-scrimmage, in which case, is the 50-yard deep throws and blazing fastballs being rifled through the tight windows of the defensive secondary going to also become extinct?
Still, all of this could be premature. Many feel NFL defenses themselves will limit the change at quarterback due to them eventually adapting to stop this new breed to quarterback. Injuries are also a big concern for this type of passer. Michael Vick saw immediate success but has only been able to play a full 16-game schedule in one of his 10 professional seasons. Robert Griffin III was also bit by the running-quarterback injury bug as he lost games due to injury and unceremoniously ended his season with an ACL and LCL tear that could even threaten his availability and productivity in the 2013 season.
So, does Football Nation see a permanent shift in the type of NFL quarterbacks we will see in the coming years? Maybe more importantly, do you feel this trend will have a positive or negative impact on the future of the game?