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Pondering the future of offensive football

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

It is one of the most famous plays in recent NFL history. Right before halftime of Super Bowl LII the Eagles scored a touchdown on a fourth down and goal play. Quarterback Nick Foles motioned out of the backfield and eventually caught a touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton, who had played some quarterback in college. The play was one of the key moments in the Eagles’ upset win over the Patriots.

Lately I have started to wonder whether we will look back on this play one day as more than an iconic Super Bowl moment. Could it be a precursor of NFL offenses in the future?

Traditional position labels have failed to keep up with the roles of today’s NFL. More and more skill players are hybrids of traditional positions.

Is a player averaging 9 targets per game like Christian McCaffrey really be called a running back? Is a player who has been one of the most productive targets from the slot the last few seasons like Travis Kelce really a tight end? 2019 saw four players nominally listed as wide receivers compile over 100 rushing yards. Many big wide receivers are now key blockers in the run game lining up in the middle of the field. The skills positions are changing. Many skill players offer versatility that goes beyond their nominal position designation.

A gradual evolution has also occurred at the quarterback position since the Dolphins popularized the Wildcat in 2008. It led us on a path to today where quarterbacks are now helping their team in the run game more than ever.

The Wildcat addressed a core problem with the run game. The quarterback has traditionally been a detriment to the run game. He handed the ball off and then did nothing to help. He didn’t block anybody. Essentially the quarterback was a player the defense didn’t have to account for. The Dolphins and other teams started directly snapping the ball to running backs for rushing plays.

Creating plays where the guy receiving the snap was also the ball carrier helped to level the playing field. Not needing somebody to hand the ball off, the offense had an extra blocker.

While the Wildcat quickly faded from view, regular quarterbacks gradually became more incorporated in the run game. Designed runs for quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Alex Smith, and Cam Newton became core plays within their teams’ respective offenses. Recently the Bills have used Josh Allen’s running ability to compensate for his still developing passing skills.

The stars of tomorrow like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray (or today in Jackson’s case) represent the actualized vision of the modern quarterback. These are players who can beat you with a 60 yard touchdown pass from the pocket but also have the blazing speed to rip off a 60 yard touchdown run. These players have all of the tools of traditional quarterbacks, but they add in the playmaking ability of stars at other positions when they tuck the ball and run.

Aside from the very elite passers, your quarterback now at least must have functional running skills. Consider this.

Baker Mayfield was the top pick of the NFL Draft two years ago. His final year at Oklahoma saw him rush for at least 50 yards in four different games. A year later his college teammate Murray was the top overall pick. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in his Heisman Trophy winning season at Oklahoma. This year’s likely top overall pick Joe Burrow had at least 40 rushing yards five times in 2019. Next year’s consensus top quarterback prospect Trevor Lawrence helped will his team to victory in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal by rushing for over 100 yards.

Even if your quarterback isn’t blessed with 4.3 speed in the 40 yard dash, your team is at a disadvantage if the threat of him faking a handoff and pulling the ball out doesn’t occupy at least one run defender on a run play.

I think about these quarterbacks when I envision the future of offense.

I also wonder about some lesser prospects. There are a lot of quarterbacks in college football capable of throwing the ball effectively but not capable of dropping back 30 times and reading complex NFL defenses. These players aren’t future franchise signal callers like Russell Wilson, but they also aren’t prospects with zero redeeming qualities like Christian Hackenberg. A future as a starting quarterback in the NFL might be beyond their grasp, but they aren’t totally lacking in football skills.

Many of these quarterbacks are good athletes with the ability to make something happen with the ball in their hands. Some might be built big enough to break tackles. Others might have blazing speed. Some have a combination of both. Opinions on Draft prospects tend to vary wildly, and people get offended to see a favorite prospect disregarded in any way (I’m looking at you guy who e-mailed me a few years ago adamant that Sean Mannion was the next Peyton Manning). With that in mind, I won’t name any names from the 2020 Draft class.

You can make your own judgments which specific prospects fit this mold. I’m talking about the prospect without elite ability in the pocket but decent throwing ability and good playmaking ability.

Traditionally one of two things would happen these prospects. A team might select a player looking to fully convert him to a new position. He might move to wide receiver and be expected to learn to run the full route tree from scratch. He might become a full-time running back or a tight end. Maybe once in a while his team would develop a gadget play where he could throw the ball.

A team also might select the player and make him a full-time quarterback viewing him as a low upside backup.

Smart roster building and coaching doesn’t pigeonhole players, though. It utilizes the talent players have. If somebody can run and throw, why not utilize all of those talents? Why not create a new hybrid role for these players?

Their throwing abilities can be utilized without a bunch of pocket dropbacks. Their playmaking abilities can be utilized without a full conversion to a new position with totally foreign techniques and responsibilities.

A good athlete could probably even learn a few very basic routes and how to catch the ball when wide open if you don’t ask him to master the full route tree or high point the ball in traffic.

Why can’t a formation with two quarterbacks be a viable way to create offense?

In the Sun Bowl a few weeks back, Florida State ran a play with a pair of quarterbacks on the field.

The play started with a lateral from one quarterback to the other.

A quarterback who is a good runner could have the ability to take the ball up the field.

But the ball going to him causes almost all defensive players on the field to flow in his direction, leaving an easy throwing lane back to the original quarterback. This play naturally creates an easy throw. It doesn’t require a quarterback to make a complex read. You just need somebody who is a good enough thrower to get it there.

Likewise, the first quarterback doesn’t need to run much or a route or make a contested catch. He just needs to catch an easy one. Then if he’s a good runner he has nothing but daylight in front of him.

A couple of years ago in the Rose Bowl Oklahoma had Mayfield run an option play into the boundary.

The defense forced Mayfield to pitch the ball to the option guy.

The option guy receiving the pitch was Murray, another quarterback. Murray had the ability to run if he saw daylight.

But he also had receivers running patterns for a potential pass attempt.

Oklahoma messed up the blocking assignment on this play so it didn’t inflict much damage, but it would have put an inordinate amount of stress on the defense if blocked correctly. Having two players capable of throwing the ball isn’t something football defenses are built to handle.

I could envision a play where you bring the second quarterback in motion to the left. At the snap the first quarterback might flip it to him running left, setting up a simple two man route combination to that side. The second quarterback could run or pass.

The first quarterback could also fake the pitch and run right to his own simple two man route combination with an option to tuck it and run.

The first quarterback might even be given an option as to whether he actually pitches or fakes the pitch the play.

This kind of design could get defenders crossed up in their assignments. The ball potentially could go to either side with both running and receiving threats populating the field from sideline to sideline. These are potential easy reads and throws. There is also potential daylight for either quarterback to turn upfield and run it.

Many football innovations are a new twist on an old offensive concept. This type of play would meld elements of the old single wing with shades of the modern spread passing game.

When I think about offensive innovations, my mind turns to the worst teams in the NFL. Every year it seems like there are one or two teams in the league with no hope. The rosters are bad, and they don’t even have a young quarterback. Winning 5 games would be an accomplishment for these teams.

I find myself wondering why they don’t try something new. These teams don’t have the talent to beat the opponent playing straight up. Why not make something like this a staple of your offense? Put two or even three athletic throwers onto the field and make use of their ability. Defenses aren’t designed to deal with consistent laterals and multiple players throwing the ball. One play a guy could line up out wide. On the next he could be at running back. On the next he could take the snap at quarterback. This would create immense presnap confusion. The guy you are supposed to cover man to man might be taking the snap at quarterback, leaving another skill player open.

It might sound gimmicky, but consider less than a century ago having the same quarterback receive the snap on every play was considered a gimmick. Football evolves, and “gimmicks” become the status quo. The future of the game always belongs to the innovators.

Bad teams instead insist on running the 31st or 32nd best version of the generic NFL offense. Something new might not work. Why risk that when you can run something that will definitely won’t work and will land you at the bottom of the league? Welcome to the thought process that plagues too many teams in the league.

It dawned on me only after starting on this article that my prototype for this NFL skill player of tomorrow is actually playing in the league right now.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In just two short years Taysom Hill has become a household name among NFL fans. He lines up everywhere. The Saints have split him out wide. They have put him in the slot. He has been a halfback, fullback, h-back, and tight end. He also receives direct snaps at quarterback.

But these are just descriptions of where he stands before the ball is snapped. He puts excess stress on the defense because he can run and catch the ball. He also gives the Saints a second thrower along with Drew Brees when he is on the field.

On most teams Hill would be pegged as a developmental quarterback and possible practice squader. Fortunately he works for somebody who is coaching to where football is going in Sean Payton. Payton has seen the value of a guy who can do it all. Hill may or may not ever develop into a full-time quarterback, but his skillset brings value even if it is a bit unconventional.

It isn’t a bad team that has brought this player to the league. It is an elite team. It should be no shock an offense that displays such forward thinking is regularly among the NFL’s best.

I think one day we will label skill players differently. We won’t have quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. We will have throwers, rushers, catchers, and blockers. Some players will be able to do more than one of these things. Some, like Hill, will be able to do them all.

These players will help offenses move the ball. It can be a lot easier manipulating defenders and creating space by slinging the ball around the field than by reading complex defenses from the pocket. Maybe if teams are open-minded they can find more players like Hill to help them do so.