Scramblers and Statues: The Quarterback in Black, White and Gray

In the NFL, one of the most electrifying players in the game is “the running quarterback.” The players to which this label have been affixed are blessed with tremendous speed, agility and vision. Some of these players have also been considered too nervous or undisciplined to stay in the pocket long enough for a play to develop. In recent years, much has been made about the superiority of the “classic pocket passer” over the “running quarterback.” One staunch advocate of the classic passing game is ESPN’s Ron Jaworski. The former Eagles quarterback is known for saying that “points come in the passing game” and “you can’t design your offense around a running quarterback.” He has added the proviso that mobility within the pocket is a critical aspect of playing the quarterback position. I’ve wanted to test his hypothesis for some time because my own recollection of elite quarterbacks over the past 30 years did not fully square with Jaw’s assessment. I certainly agreed that points came in the passing game. I believe that teams pass to score and they run and play defense to win. It’s nice to be able to do all three of those things, but if I could only take two, I’d take a Top 10 defense and a Top 10 running game. (I’ll take my chances with play action passes and a motion offense any day of the week.)

I have to give a tip of the hat to Jweiler over at The Starting Five. His comparison of Steve Young and Michael Vick (specifically during the first 6 years of their careers was eye-opening. His piece illustrated the extent to which MSM (mainstream media) will go to blur lines, to misinterpret statistics, and to fabricate claims absent a scintilla of evidence.

It spurred me to finally crunch the numbers. I used the same approach as J did over at TSF. I divided pass attempts by rush attempts to establish a pass:run ratio. This is a basic approach to making determinations about QB playing styles. I did not look at yards per attempt. Clearly that statistic would allow for additional separation, but that was not my principal concern here. As it is, I believe there will strong agreement between these ratios and those we recall as “scramblers” and “statues.” The term “running quarterback” is so widely used that it has escaped definition in most circles. We may not have listed all the elements, but we know one when we see one. That’s probably not sufficient for this discussion if it grows beyond this post, but it is a start. So, what then is a “running quarterback”? For me, a running quarterback is a quarterback with the capacity to run. In looking at the data, I found that quarterbacks who can run do run. Quarterbacks who cannot run, do not run. Given the skill level, athleticism and fury of defenders, running is not the worst idea. In fact, some of the greatest quarterbacks in this game were/are excellent runners. It is also probably not sufficient to say a running QB is a QB who can run because there are so many reasons why QBs run. Here are a few:

  • Poor offensive line play
  • Poor wide receiver play
  • Lack of comfort with the offense
  • Lack of knowledge of the offense
  • Lack of confidence in passing ability
  • Evading pressure to extend plays
  • Planned runs/draws/sneaks

I believe there has always been a negative connotation to being a running QB. That’s not entirely surprising. Some players prefer to be called “mobile quarterbacks.” Perhaps that is more accurate. After all, most players and coaches recognize that it is easier to pass for yardage than to run; that players are more dangerous when they pose a dual threat; that powerful offenses tend to have success passing the ball. With respect to the data, I have attached a PDF chart to demonstrate a rather surprising continuum of quarterbacks in the league. For those of you with no desire to look at a PDF, the table is presented below with all of the same data.

QB Pass-Run Ratios.pdf

The first thing that jumped out at me on this continuum of quarterbacks was that the cluster of four quarterbacks with 11 total Super Bowl rings: Montana, Brady, Aikman and Simms. Each has a pass ratio between 11.8 and 14.4. That is a tight grouping. It is interesting that Warren Moon is in the middle of this group with a ratio of 12.6. Moon, of course, was precluded from playing in the quarterback in the NFL due to white supremacy for six years. Stringent unwritten rules were rescinded and Moon was granted an opportunity to play. Moon’s Oilers ran the “Run ‘n Shoot” offense which may have undermined their ability to seal the deal.

Then again, Terry Bradshaw and John Elway have significantly higher ratios – and both did a great deal of running around early in their careers. Bradshaw’s numbers in Super Bowl years, though, are interesting. The numbers would support the idea that as quarterbacks and offenses mature, the pass:run ratio will increase. In the Steelers first four Super Bowl victories, Terry Bradshaw has pass:run ratios of 4.4, 8.2, 11.5 and 22.5. The Steelers won back-to-back twice. Bradshaw basically doubled his ratio with each Super Bowl win.

Other items of note: Quarterbacks with passing records and limited or no success in Super Bowls, except for Fran Tarkenton, were clustered at the traditional pocket passer end of the continuum (Favre, Warner, Marino, Fouts). Some passers who might be considered traditional pocket passers actually have much higher ratios than anticipated (Brady, Williams, Leftwich). Then there’s Kenny “The Snake” Stabler. Stabler had to be one of the more elusive pocket passers of his or any era. I was so shocked by his numbers, I need to check the data from another source. There’s more: consider the pass:run ratios of Danny White and Roger Staubach. That’s a contrast of more than 2:1.

This is just the beginning of an analysis which should weigh some of these questions:

  • How have these quarterbacks performed during the early years of their careers?
  • What were the pass:run ratios of quarterbacks during years in which they won the Super Bowl?
  • Is there really a “sweet spot” ratio for optimizing the effectiveness of quarterbacks?

The table is not working. Please read the PDF.

       

4 comments

  1. I’ll begin by saying I commend your effort to frame this issue in scientific terms.

    But the topic of ‘running’ versus ‘pocket’ QBs in the NFL is not one that can be resolved by statistical analysis. Forgive me in advance for not bothering to read your chart. However, there are some factors I can list off the top of my head that render the question moot. I’ll try to elaborate.

    The main reason why a ‘running’ QB can only experience limited success in the NFL has been painfully apparent (no pun intended) for nearly 70 years — the defensive players are, increasingly, too big, too fast, and platooned in such a manner where a coach is literally placing the health of his team’s field general at an unnecessary risk. For a QB to really be effective in the NFL as a runner, he’d have to be by design a serious threat to run on 1st and 2nd down, as in the famous option offense that’s featured on the college and high school levels. And it’s not as if a QB with the athletic ability of a Steve Young or Randall Cunningham couldn’t be successful occasionally running on first- or second down, but the cumulative beating he’d take over the course of a season rushing the ball would undermine his throwing ability. QBs take enough of a beating dropping back to pass in the pocket. (Those who’ve played QB in an option-style attack will know what I’m talking about.)

    Yet, a high value is placed on a QB’s mobility. But by ‘mobility’, we’re not talking about sprinter’s speed or running in the open field. Dan Marino couldn’t run at all, but was uncannily mobile in the pocket. The QB need not be a scrambler, a la Tarkenton or Staubach. He only needs to avoid would-be tacklers long enough to acquire his target downfield. A savvy QB learns to do this with a step, to his left or right.

    Michael Vick once again proved, using your QB as a ‘runner’ will not work in the NFL. As Jaworski alluded, it doesn’t win games on average. QB’s add the most value to their teams by completing passes down the field, thereby neutralizing defenses that stack up against the run. Perhaps by some ‘back to the future’ combination of rules, formations, and strategies, we’ll see a NFL offense integrate the raw physical talents of an Eric Crouch or Pat White, but I doubt we’ll ever see a true ‘running’ QB.

  2. Thanks MIB.

    I do believe the question lends itself to statistical analysis, but there are about 30 or 40 more performance indicators which need to be crunched. For example, I believe that mobility within the pocket is most critical – and is demonstrated by those quarterbacks with an intermediate pass:run ratio. You need to look at the chart.

    The question of whether a pure “running quarterback” can have Super Bowl success is a red herring. It is such for precisely the reasons you’ve mentioned. It makes one wonder why Jaworski and folks ever mention this. Clearly, quarterbacks who have the capacity to sit behind a solid line and throw to receivers with hands prefer to pass the ball. Exhibit A: Randall Cunningham was the quarterback for the offense which scored the most points in the history of the NFL. His pass:run ratio during that season was 13.2. That’s higher than Brady’s career average. It’s higher than Joe Montana. It’s higher than John Elway.

    Frankly, crunching these numbers revealed to me that there is more disinformation about the position of quarterback than will allow for honest conversation.

    The numbers do tell a story. I’m just beginning on this project – but I believe that part of the story will be that Black QBs with the lowest pass:run ratios (like Michael Vick) have invariably been saddled with sub par offensive lines and mediocre wide receivers.

    I began this process with the belief that mobile quarterbacks would have a clear statistical advantage over immobile quarterbacks. The data still supports that conclusion – even though there are significant limitations.

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