The Running QB Conundrum

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Are NFL coaches risking their QBs' long term interests for short term gains?

The last few years in the NFL have seen a grand (or sinister, depending on your point of view) experiment in running quarterbacks.  Quarterbacks are running the ball more that at any time in modern NFL history.  This not only benefits the running game, it also benefits the passing game.  Defenses are forced to account for the possibility of the quarterback running at all times, opening up passing lanes as well as buying more time for the quarterback to throw.  The result is the golden age of dual threat quarterbacks, with multiple young hotshots at the top of league standings in both quarterback rushing yardage and quarterback rating.  The chart below lists all seasons of 90 or more running attempts in a single season over the last 50 years.


Most QB rushing attempts in a single season last 50 years:

QB

Year

Rush Atts

.

Michael Vick

2002

141

Bobby Douglass

1972

141

Cam Newton

2012

127

Cam Newton

2011

125

Michael Vick

2006

123

Tim Tebow

2011

120

RG III

2012

118

Randall Cunningham

1990

118

Cam Newton

2013

111

Daunte Culpepper

2003

106

Randall Cunningham

1989

104

Michael Vick

2005

102

Steve McNair

1997

101

Michael Vick

2010

99

Russell Wilson

2013

96

Kordell Stewart

2003

96

Colin Kaepernick

2013

95

Russell Wilson

2012

94

Bobby Douglass

1973

94

Vince Young

2007

93

Randall Cunningham

1988

93

As one can see from the chart, the NFL has entered a new age.   Of the 21 seasons listed, only 6 occurred prior to 2002.  Five of the top nine occurred in the last three years.  There have only been four seasons in the last 50 years where two or more quarterbacks topped 90 rushing attempts.  Three of the four occurred in the last three years, and the other occurred in 2002.  Clearly there has been a sea change in how NFL quarterbacks are being utilized.  There is little doubt that the new, athletic, running quarterback presents a new and exciting element to offenses, and presents defenses with some difficult new challenges.  Having to defend 11 on 11 instead of the traditional 11 on 10 makes for more effective offensive play.  But at what cost?  What price is being extracted in terms of long term futures of the quarterbacks in exchange for this new breed of offense?

Listed below are all quarterbacks who played in the last 50 years who have had more than 70 rushing attempts in at least one season and have finished their careers as NFL starters.  I have made the assumption Michael Vick is done as an NFL starter and therefore included him in the list.

Some explanatory notes may be in order.

# Seasons 70+ Rush Atts = The number of seasons the quarterback ran the ball more than 70 times.


Age Last Season 70+ Rush Atts =  The age the quarterback was in his last season with more than 70 rushing attempts.


Age Last Season Started All Games = The age of the quarterback in the last season he started every one of his team's games.  This attempts to measure when injuries first began to become an issue.


# Seasons Age 30+ Above Average QB Rating and Started 75% Games = The number of seasons after he hit the age of 30 that the quarterback both started at least 75% of his team's games and had a QB rating higher than league average.  This attempts to measure how reliable the quarterback was as an above average quarterback after the age of 30.



Age Last Season Above Average QB Rating and Started 75% Games = The age of the quarterback the last season in his career that the quarterback both started at least 75% of his team's games and had a QB rating higher than league average.  This attempts to measure how old the quarterback was when he was last a good, reliable quarterback.


Age Last Season Started 50% Games = The age of the quarterback the last season in his career that he started at least 50% of his team's games.  This attempts to measure the age when the quarterback was done as an NFL starter.


Quarterbacks in the last 50 years with more than 70 rushing attempts in a single season:

QB

# Seasons

70+ Rush Atts

Age Last Season

70+ Rush Atts

Age

Last Season

Started All Games

# Seasons

Age 30+

Above

Average

QB Rating

and

Started

75%

Games

Age

Last

Season

Above

Average

QB Rating

and

Started

75%

Games

Age

Last

Season

Started

50%

Games

.

Randall Cunningham

6

29

27

1

35

35

Michael Vick

6

31

26

1

31

32

Steve McNair

6

29

33

3

33

33

Daunte Culpepper

5

27

27

0

27

27

Kordell Stewart

4

29

29

0

29

29

Donovan McNabb

3

27

32

3

33

34

Greg Landry

2

26

26

2

33

33

Steve Young

2

31

33

6

37

37

David Garrard

2

31

31

1

31

31

Vince Young

2

24

Never

0

Never

26

Bobby Douglass

2

26

25

0

Never

26

Steve Grogan

1

25

26

1

30

30

A few interesting preliminary observations are in order.  There are only twelve quarterbacks on this list.  Of the twelve, ten received Pro Bowl honors at least once in their careers.  A total of 32 Pro Bowl seasons are represented on the list, yet only one quarterback listed, Steve Young, ever won a Super Bowl.  Whether this is meaningful or just random statistical noise is not clear.

The price quarterbacks pay for running the ball is fairly clearly shown in the chart.  Only two quarterbacks, Steve Young and Randall Cunningham, ever posted above average QB ratings while starting as many as 75 % of their team's games after the age of 33.  Only Young did it more than once.  Not one of the quarterbacks listed ran the ball more than 70 times after the age of 31.  Seven of the twelve never started all of their team's games after the age of 27, and only four ever did it after age 29.  Only four of the twelve were effective, reliable quarterbacks more than one season past the age of 30, and all but three of the twelve were done as NFL starters by age 33.

This isn't a pretty picture for running quarterbacks.  In short, they have limited shelf lives.  After around age 30 or so they cannot be relied upon, and after age 33 or so they are generally done.  All the extra hits take their inevitable toll on the quarterbacks' bodies.

This sets up an inherent and unavoidable conflict of interest between NFL head coaches and quarterbacks.  NFL head coaches are in win now mode at all times.  They cannot afford to worry about the long term futures of their quarterbacks or their teams, because it is very unlikely they will be around to see such futures.  Listed below is a complete list of all NFL head coaches who started their head coaching careers in the last 30 years and spent at least 10 years with the same team:

Head coaches who started their careers after 1983 and spent 10 or more years with the same team:

Coach

Team

Years

# of Years

.

Jeff Fisher

Titans

1994-2010

17

Bill Cowher

Steelers

1992-2006

15

Bill Belichick

Patriots

2000-Present

14

Andy Reid

Eagles

1999-2012

14

Mike Shanahan

Broncos

1995-2008

14

Marvin Lewis

Bengals

2003-Present

11

Jim Mora

Saints

1986-1996

11

Tom Coughlin

Giants

2004-Present

10

Dennis Green

Vikings

1992-2001

10

As you can see, the list is not a long one.  No coach over the last 30 years has lasted more than 17 years with the same team.  Only five have lasted more than 11 years with the same team.  Only three have lasted more than 10 years with the same team and  are still employed with that team.  As you can see, the career of an NFL coach is a short and insecure one.  Rex Ryan, now going on his 6th year with the Jets, is living on borrowed time.  In a league where a majority of coaches don't last beyond 5 years with any one team, the long term future of the team or its quarterback is necessarily an afterthought.

The next chart lists all NFL coaches who have spent 10 or more years with the same starting quarterback over the last 30 years.  As you can see, the list is even shorter.

Head coaches who spent 10 or more years with the same starting QB in the last 30 years:

Coach

Team

QB

Years

# of Years

.

Bill Belichick

Patriots

Brady

2001-Present

13

Andy Reid

Eagles

McNabb

1999-2009

11

Marv Levy

Bills

Kelly

1986-1996

11

Dan Reeves

Broncos

Elway

1983-1992

10

Tom Coughlin

Giants

E. Manning

2004-Present

10

There are only five names on that list.  Only three are currently coaching in the NFL.  The message is clear.  The chances of a head coach being around to see the last years of their franchise quarterback are remote.  Under those circumstances, there is an unavoidable and irreconcilable conflict of interest between the coach, who needs to win now, every year, or risk being fired, and the quarterback's and the team's long term future.  It is in the coach's best interests to do whatever it takes to win every game he can, regardless of the toll that might take on his players.  If that means running his athletic Pro Bowl quarterback into the ground in order to squeeze out every ounce of short term gain, so be it.  The chances of the coach being around long enough to worry about paying the price for such a strategy are too remote to worry about.  The young, athletic quarterbacks are unlikely to protest based on their long term futures.  Young men in their early to mid 20's, in their absolute prime, and used to running wild from their earliest days in Pop Warner, are unlikely to worry too much about the toll all those hits will inevitably take on their all too human bodies.   These young men, like nearly all young men, generally feel invincible.   If injuries happen, they are "freak" occurrences that could happen to anyone.  No Cam Newton or Michael Vick is spending a lot of time thinking about the statistical likelihood that their style of play is taking years off their careers.  They are just enjoying being supermen while it lasts.

So we come to the current grand (or sinister) experiment in hyperathletic quarterbacks running at a pace wildly in excess of any ever before experienced.  The coaches don't care much about the likely consequences; that's an issue for the next guy, as the current coach is unlikely to be around long enough for it to matter to him.  The quarterbacks don't care much, because like nearly all young men they are young and a little foolish and fully convinced of their own invincibility.   The general managers don't care much, because like the coaches they need to win now or risk being fired.  So who is looking out for the quarterbacks?  It is ironic that in an era when the NFL is attempting to protect the quarterback like never before with a plethora of new rules, the coaches are doing all they can to undermine those protections by exposing their quarterbacks in the running game like never before in NFL history.  In exchange for that small competitive edge the coaches are making a deal with the devil; only their quarterbacks are the ones who will eventually have to pay the price.


Geno Smith and the Future

It has become something of the rage here on GGN to note that Geno Smith was far more effective the last four games when he was using his legs more.  The meme is, when Geno runs, the Jets win.  Cue the applause.  While that may be true, it may also be rather short sighted.  Geno Smith ran the ball 31 times over those last four games.  Prorated over a full season and that would be 124 rushing attempts in a season.  Had he done that for a full season it would have placed Geno first among all NFL quarterbacks in rushing attempts for 2013, and it would place him among the five highest totals in NFL history.  Running the ball that much takes a toll.  Factor in maybe 70 to 80 hits from the combined total of sacks plus QB hits not resulting in sacks, and you're talking about getting hit some 200 times in a season.  That's starting running back territory - more than Chris Ivory's total of rushing attempts plus passes caught in any season of his career.  That kind of punishment is something few quarterbacks can stand up to in the long run.  It should also be noted that Geno has something of a reckless side when it comes to his running.  He doesn't slide  much, and he often lowers his shoulder and goes all out for the extra yard.   That's exciting to watch and leads to some short term gains as he fights for first downs and touchdowns.  But how long will it be before dislocated shoulders, broken collar bones, concussions and the like become an ever present specter haunting our quarterback?

The Jets like Geno running the ball.  Most Jets fans like it too.  Geno himself, while somewhat reluctant at first, seems to have greatly warmed to the idea.  But if Geno proves to be a legitimate long term answer at quarterback for the NY Jets, how many more years of this kind of running can Geno take?   The question boils down to what is more important, some short term benefits for the team or the long term health of Geno and the long term future of the Jets?  For Rex and for many fans, a somewhat mercenary approach is probably the order of the day.  Forget the future, we want to win now.  We HAVE to win now.  But for Geno Smith and the Jets' long term prospects, we may just be running our quarterback and this franchise into the ground.

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