Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson. Deshaun Watson. Even Russell Wilson. There is little doubt who the most exciting Quarterbacks to watch are this season. They’re also the most successful QBs in the league this year, at least in terms of personal accolades as these are the main candidates for MVP.
In the past it’s been all about passing yards statistics as the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady have ripped up the record books. Cam Newton and Russell Wilson bridged the gap but now it seems the athletic QB is the new black.
The Next Generation of QB
Deshaun Watson started this with exciting plays with both his arms and his legs in 2017. As Wembley-goers will know, he is great at escaping the pocket and extending the play, even just to make a pass. Patrick Mahomes took it a step further, winning MVP a season ago, taking the league by storm in his first full season. Now Lamar Jackson is taking it to another level. Even Kyler Murray is starting to get in on the act.
Jackson has only 2000 yards passing through nine games. However, he also has 702 rushing yards (11th most in the NFL), 80 more than his Running Back Mark Ingram.
In terms of all purpose yards, Jackson ranks seventh in the league. It should also be pointed out that three of the six ahead are Phil Rivers, Jameis Winston and Kyler Murray, who have a combined record of 10-18-1, and have had a chance to pad passing stats in defeats. Both Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes have at least 2600 passing yards and Wilson has another 256 rushing yards.
Part of the added production is avoiding sacks. Mahomes has been sacked 10 times but Jackson, Wilson and Deshaun Watson have all hit the deck at least 18 times this season. Imagine how many they would have faced behind weak offensive lines without mobility. Anyone who has seen their team play Patrick Mahomes over the last 18 months, knows how difficult it is to contain Mahomes, even though he rarely runs the ball himself.
Can They Stay Clean?
The age old proverb is that you see a lot of young running Quarterbacks but you don’t see many old ones. Mahomes has already missed games with injury and Deshaun Watson has had an eye injury. However both were on ‘standard’ QB plays. It only takes one hit to limit their mobility. So do they have the cerebral ability to know when it is best to get down or stay in the pocket? Russell Wilson and Mahomes have certainly proved they have this ability. The last thing this generation of running QBs need is a muscle injury. That being said, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Nick Foles have all missed time through injury. The only ‘true’ running QB injury has been Cam Newton.
Creating Opportunities For Others
The other side of it is how it opens up the running game. The Ravens are on to have the best team rushing season by yards in NFL history, with 197 yards a game. The Texans are also in the top five rushing teams. The Chiefs have easily the best passing attack in the league, despite Mahomes missing two games. And while the Cowboys have the most total yards per game, the rest of the top five consists of Lamar Jackson’s Ravens, Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, Deshaun Watson’s Texans and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks.
It will be interesting to see how Jackson and Watson mature and whether they stay in the pocket more. Russell Wilson has shown in his eight seasons that while he has scaled back running the ball, the ability to escape the pocket and scramble for a positive play is critical in tiring a defence out.
Both DeAndre Hopkins and Kenny Stills told me prior to their game with the Jaguars that a running QB is a great benefit for them as a receiver. Hopkins said Deshaun Watson’s ability to extend a play “affects [him] a lot. Knowing that the Quarterback can keep the play alive”. The Texans star says its all about finding the open spot and getting in the QB’s eyeline. Meanwhile Stills described Watson as a “baller” and working with a running QB “means the play is never over.”
Aging Pocket Passers A Factor
Part of the dichotomy is the aging of a great generation of pocket passers. Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Phil Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger aren’t posting the numbers they once did as their bodies gradually limit them. That alongside coaches not trying to neuter running QBs has led to the change in focus.
So are running QBs the norm going forward? The honest answer is we don’t know – yet. While the evidence from this year suggests this is the case, it will take time. We would have said the same in 2012 when the read-option burst on to the scene. Back then though it was gradually phased out as defences could counteract it and QBs like Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III were forced to play the position in a more traditional way.
It also depends what talent the college game produces for the NFL. If there are no physical specimens coming through, the NFL as a whole will revert back to the pocket passer. However, the direction of travel is to teach athletes to play QB in college. With the success of it at both levels, why wouldn’t coaches utilise a running QB?
One interesting unintended consequence will be how the rules deal with rushing QBs. The NFL has made obvious changes to keep their poster children healthy and on the field every Sunday. If the next superstars are Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, will referees be able to protect them?