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.
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.