NFL’s dual-threat QB revolution proving that the prototype at the position is changing

Eric Edholm
·12-min read
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

When Tom Brady and Drew Brees faced off in a highly celebrated Week 1 matchup, it was billed as a meeting of two of the greatest quarterbacks of theirs or any other generation — and a possible playoff preview for two Super Bowl contenders.

That matchup was a nod to a nearly bygone era.

With each passing year, with the rise of the dual-threat quarterbacks storming the league, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see two true pocket passers face off. On Sunday, Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray — two sub-6-foot whirling dervishes — will meet in one of Week 7’s most anticipated matchups. A generation ago, they might have been written off as college-QB gadflies, or perhaps tried at another position in the NFL.

Now, everyone wants a Wilson or a Murray of their own, a telling snapshot of an evolving league.

“[Wilson is] just really good at everything,” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said prior to facing the Seahawks in Week 2. “You have to defend the whole field with him. Very dangerous in the pocket, out of the pocket, great deep ball passer, has excellent vision, super competitive, hard to tackle.”

When Belichick was tasked with replacing Brady this offseason, he didn’t seek a Brady clone. The Patriots went with Cam Newton, who might possess the strapping physique of the pocket passer of yore, but his style of play has been a night-and-day departure from what Brady did in New England.

In many ways, Newton was one of the progenitors of the league’s evolving tastes at QB. In 2011 he was considered a unicorn, but Newton in many ways has helped redefine the position over the past decade with his run-and-throw prowess.

Has the quarterback prototype officially been changed? Not completely.

Rising bright stars fit evolving mold for NFL QBs

Pocket passers such as Brady, Brees and Matt Ryan are still playing at a high level, and NFL passing games are still partly rooted from concepts first developed in the 1960s AFL and the West Coast offenses thereafter.

Newton also still serves as a reminder that some of the prototype elements of the old-school quarterback — a strong arm, a tall build and a toughness to hang in the pocket — are traits that remain valued in today’s game.

However, they’re no longer prerequisites. The wave of dual-threat quarterbacks, who come in all shapes and sizes, and with varying playing styles, in today’s NFL brought a new brand of passer to the league’s forefront. Perhaps no one realized this better than the Baltimore Ravens. In taking a chance on skinny-legged Lamar Jackson at the end of the first round of the 2018 draft, the Ravens ended the free fall for an electric college player whose pro projection was difficult for some other teams to foresee.

The Ravens valued Jackson’s ability to break down defenses in a variety of ways more than other teams did, even as recently as two years ago.

“Mobility in the pocket, ability to extend plays, the things that you saw both quarterbacks do in our game [against the Houston Texans and QB Deshaun Watson],” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said, “[are] just a huge part of the NFL right now.”

Some of the league’s brightest young stars at the position — Wilson, Jackson, Watson, Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and the injured Dak Prescott among them — have helped change the way we look at QB play and how teams unleash their varied skills.

It’s also a theme that’ll be revisited come draft time in the spring. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, along with fast-rising prospects such as BYU’s Zach Wilson, all possess the ability to break down defenses with their arms, their legs or both.

“The idea of the 6-foot-3 pocket passer who just hangs there, I think, is just more of a thing of the past,” said private QBs coach Quincy Avery, who has tutored multiple first-round draft picks at the position and who is helping Fields and Lance prep for the NFL. “[Teams] are allowing guys to use their different skills to define the position, and they’re doing it more in ways that allow them to feel comfortable.”

What are the biggest reasons for the positional shift?

For one, the league is adapting to the talent that’s arriving from the collegiate ranks. Two, mobile quarterbacks stress defenses in ways that pure pocket passers do not. And teams also are taking advantage of the NFL’s rulebook, which appears to be helping dual-threat QBs thrive in new ways.

‘You just can’t touch the quarterback anymore’

ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL QB, says this generation of quarterbacks deserves all the merit it can receive for the variety of special talents. He also believes that part of the NFL’s acceptance in unleashing them is rooted in the league’s changing rules.

“I think a huge part of this [revolution] is … you can’t touch them,” Orlovsky said. “You just can’t touch the quarterback anymore. Not only because of the space and spread aspect of the game keeps them away from the bad guys more, but now the bad guys can’t even do bad things to them anymore.”

Some numbers appear to back up Orlovsky’s claim. Quarterbacks are being protected more than ever before. The increase of roughing-the-passer penalties has been massive over the past decade. In the 2009 season (including playoffs), there were 69 roughing calls in 267 total games, an average of 0.26 per game. In 2019, those penalties nearly doubled at 136, or 0.51 per game. This year’s rate is a tad behind that, at 0.44 roughing calls per game (40 in 91 games to date).

At the outset of the new emphases on protecting quarterbacks in 2018, even some QBs expressed shock at how strictly penalties were being called. After their Week 2 meeting in 2018, Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins admitted they were stunned at late flags that benefited them.

Of course, that has no bearing on when quarterbacks become runners.

This season Arizona's Kyler Murray leads all NFL QBs in rushing yards and attempts. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
This season Arizona's Kyler Murray leads all NFL QBs in rushing yards and attempts. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The league’s proviso to protect a sliding quarterback — rule 7, section 2, article 1(d)(2) of the NFL rulebook — has been in place for more than three decades. Defenders can’t touch a scrambling QB who willingly gives themselves up, as the rule stated: “a defender must pull up when a runner begins a feet-first slide.”

A 2018 addendum added this often overlooked but crucial development that has allowed mobile quarterbacks even more protection than before: “A quarterback does not have to slide feet first to be considered to be giving himself up.”

And as a result, some quarterbacks are benefiting greatly. We’ve had nine of the 10 highest rushing-attempt totals by quarterbacks in NFL history since 2011. The top two spots on the list belong to Jackson, who ran 147 times in 2018 and 176 more last season.

In Allen’s rookie season with the Buffalo Bills in 2018, he ran for a combined 321 yards in a three-game span, breaking the three-game mark set by Michael Vick in 2006. Last season, Jackson broke Allen’s mark with a total of 338 rush yards in Weeks 5-7. The Bills and Ravens rode their dual-threat quarterbacks’ backs into the playoffs.

Even though Jackson’s rushing attempts per game are down this season, he’s one of three quarterbacks (along with Murray and Newton) averaging more than eight rushes per game. Since the 1970 merger, we’ve never had an NFL season with more than two QBs starting 10 games or more averaging that many carries.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton and the 6-5, 237-pound Allen are massive-framed quarterbacks. Murray and the 6-2 Jackson are listed at 210 and 212 pounds, respectively. Despite their considerable size differences, those four are Nos. 1 through 4 this season in QB rush attempts.

Twenty years ago, Orlovsky said the rules were such that “quarterbacks could get absolutely sawed off.” Now, not so much — the NFL is in the business of protecting its star players at its most heralded position.

Could this QB revolution have happened then, as it is now?

“I don’t think so,” Orlovsky said. “The protection of the quarterbacks is a massive deal.”

Forcing defenses to play 11-on-11: ‘No one catches up with this stuff’

Murray couldn’t get anything going early on Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Late in the first quarter, he was 3-for-13 passing for 26 yards, missing short, middle and deep.

Facing a third-and-10 near midfield, Murray dropped back to see the Cowboys rushing three, dropping linebacker Jaylon Smith as a QB spy (with Jourdan Lewis stacked behind Smith) and the remainder of the defenders in zone coverage.

That meant all 11 eyes were on Murray. But he didn’t try to throw his way out of his passing slump. Instead, Murray wiggled his way through the Cowboys’ embattled defense and dove for a back-breaking first down.

“I’ve said this about Kyler this year: It’s just not about it being 11-on-11,” Orlovsky said. “It’s as much the idea of, who do you feel good enough about the 11th guy being? You’ve got to allocate a person who you feel can tackle him in space.

“That’s a real worry for defensive coordinators. You can’t just put a linebacker out there on him.”

(An aside: Someone needs to alert the Cowboys to this.)

Murray’s scramble helped kick-start the Cardinals’ offensive onslaught in the game. He completed a mere nine passes total — one in the second half — and led the Cardinals to 38 points, all on offense. His counterpart, Andy Dalton, completed 34 passes … and the Cowboys scored 10 points.

According to NFL Research, it was the first game since at least 1948 that a team won by 25-plus points despite its leading passer having 25-plus fewer completions than the opposing QB.

“He's just so special with the ball in his hands,” said Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk, who caught TD passes of 6 and 80 yards in the game. “It was only nine completions, but … the scoreboard said it all.”

Murray leads all quarterbacks in rushing attempts (51), yards (370) and touchdown runs (six). It’s another example of how a dual-threat quarterback can still dominate games even if one aspect of his game isn’t clicking.

“With Lamar [Jackson], Russell Wilson, Murray, that caliber of runner, they can still thrive if you take away one element of their game,” a front office executive told Yahoo Sports. “If the defense commits someone to spy the QB, that’s one less to stop the pass. If you drop the extra guy into coverage, [the quarterback] is unaccounted for.”

That executive’s team faced Wilson years ago and watched as he corkscrewed defenders into the ground more than once on scrambles. And that might have been the moment, the exec said, when he knew the dual-threat movement was here to stay. It even impacted his view of scouting quarterbacks and helped motivate the team to draft and develop a young dual-threat QB of its own.

“Even with Mahomes,” the exec continued, “you can draw up the perfect defense for him, cover everyone running routes, pressure him … and he can still cut you with one of those third-down scrambles he does. It’s just maddening for a defense. You can’t stop everything he has for four quarters.

“The old line of thinking was: be open to drafting that type of quarterback if you find one that also does everything else well. But now, they’re all over the league.”

Mahomes won MVP in 2018. Jackson won it last year. Wilson looks like the MVP favorite in 2020. And perhaps Murray is in line for the award one day.

Multi-threat QBs have won the MVP before. But we’ve never had three straight seasons where three different passers of this ilk have been voted the league’s most impactful player. The rate we’re at now, with this style of quarterback becoming more the standard, that run might not end for many years.

There’s always the risk of quarterbacks suffering a Prescott-caliber injury, which looks like a potential season-killer for a team such as the 2-4 Cowboys. But now more than ever, the game is centered on allowing dual-threat stars to thrive in the NFL the way they did in high school and college football.

“There are more of the dual-threat guys than the true pocket passers coming out,” Avery said. “The way the game is coached has changed at the high school level, and now it’s finally making its way through the NFL.”

No longer are teams afraid to call the read-option and use the quarterback as a runner. The RPO (read-pass options) is a triple threat in the hands of a mobile QB: They can give the ball to a back, throw it or run it.

As San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said last year, quarterbacks who can execute all of those plays “put guys in a bind. It makes teams play 11-on-11 football.

“You’ve got to decide whether you want to play 11-on-11 or if you want to keep things the same and play 10-on-11. Most people, usually the quarterback, makes you pay if you play 10-on-11 when you have these types of quarterbacks.

“I think it will be that way until the end of time. I mean, no one catches up with this stuff. It’s not a gimmick play, it’s a very sound way to run an offense and [dual-threat QBs] are doing it at a very high level right now.”

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