Is the pocket collapsing?
The Super Bowl is to football what the runway is to fashion. The best teams are on full display and the copycats are taking notes. New styles that prove to be winners become templates for success.
The drubbing of the Denver Broncos by the Seattle Seahawks on the big stage made a huge statement about the direction of the game. In a league that has continued to get "Bigger, Faster, Stronger" the quarterback's role has been redefined. Traditional drop-back passers, ala 6' 5" Peyton Manning and 6' 4" Tom Brady, may soon become a thing of the past. The new template for successful quarterbacks is taking shape and no one resembles that shape more than 5'11" Russell Wilson.
It began with 6' tall Fran Tarkenton who was drafted by both the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL and The Boston Patriots of the AFL in 1961. He chose the Vikings where he was nicknamed "The Mad Scrambler". In 1969 a biography was written about him titled "Better Scramble than Lose". Tarkenton played 18 years in the NFL for the Vikings and the Giants (1967-'71) , making it to three Super Bowls, but never winning one. In 1975 he was the NFL's Most Valuable Player and when he retired he had thrown 342 touchdown passes, had 124 regular season wins, rushed for 3,674 yards and had just about every major quarterback record prompting Viking's head coach Bud Grant to call him "the greatest quarterback who ever played."
Tarkenton's scrambling ways were continued by Kordell Stewart, Randall Cunningham, Steve Young and later Michael Vick. The debate began. Can a scrambling quarterback stay healthy and win the big game?
In 1988 after a slow start, the New England Patriots replaced Steve Grogan with 5'10" quarterback Doug Flutie. Flutie, a scrambler who cared little about passing stats, won six of nine games, but was suddenly pulled from his starting position in favor of pocket passer Tony Eason. The network broadcasting the game had delivered a pregame that was all about Flutie's success as a starter, but Flutie never took the field. Instead Coach Raymond Berry opted for a traditional pocket quarterback. Eason wasn't in a Patriots' uniform very long, but it is interesting to know he was picked by the Patriots in the 1983 draft with Dan Marino still available...
In 2012 the San Francisco Forty Niners made a big move at quarterback, removing their starter Alex Smith for the more athletic Kolin Kaepernick. The Smith led Niners were 6-2-1 and with a 70.2% completion percentage, Smith was leading the league in that category. By all accounts there was no reason to remove Smith. The debate started, but ended quickly when Kaepernick began winning games. It turned into a "brilliant move by Harbaugh" when his team made it to the Super Bowl in 2012 and then the NFC Championship in 2013. In 155 rushing attempts over two years Kaepernick gained 939 yards rushing. It's obvious that Kaepernick is the more complete quarterback and with that athleticism under center defenses have had much more to prepare for.
Not too unlike Stewart, Cunningham, Vick and other early prototypes, the new-age quarterback has the shiny wheels, but uses them as "Plan B" or when the play brakes down and there's a first down available on the ground. Moving the chains is what this new-age quarterback does best. But do not underestimate the strength of their arms, they're not lacking in that category either. These guys are not one-trick ponies. They're multi-talented and can do a lot of things very well. And, they are coming to the NFL from college ready-to-play out of the box. There is no need to carry clipboards for two to three years, the game they play is physical and for the young. These young quarterbacks are more adept than the traditional pocket passers at succeeding in the new role quarterback's play in complex offenses. They're no longer the hub of the wheel, they are however, important cogs and if they can play mistake-free football, they can be successful.
So are we seeing in Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and other pocket passers, a dying breed? Is the pocket collapsing? I believe so. The new-age quarterback is more athletic, throws on the run, can manage a complex offense, and can pick up first downs using his legs. A quick look at "new-age" versus "old school" is revealing. Here's the 2013 quarterback rushing stats, first the new-age guys: Newton (585), Pryor (576), Wilson (539), Kaepernick (524), RG III (489), Luck (377), and Geno Smith (366). Now for the old school pocket passers: Flacco (131), Cutler (118), Roethlisberger (99), Rivers (72), Clemens (64), Brees (52), Romo (38), E. Manning (36), Brady (18), P. Manning (-31). Although having a rushing quarterback doesn't guarantee wins, it does keep the defense honest and gives the offense more options, especially on third down.
With the success of the Seattle Seahawks it is certain that their system will be dissected. Obviously their overly aggressive defense kept opposing quarterbacks off the field and out of the end zone, but when it came to winning games their potent offense was up to the task. That offense was run effectively and efficiently by second year quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson was picked 12th in the third round, 75th overall. At the University of Wisconsin in 2011 Wilson set the single season FBS record for passing efficiency (191.8) and led the team to a Big Ten Title and the 2012 Rose Bowl. He received the "Big Ten Quarterback of the Year" award.
Wilson's success came early. At Collegiate School (a preparatory school) in Richmond, Virginia, in his junior year he threw for 3,287 yards and 40 touchdowns. He also rushed for 634 yards and 15 touchdowns. His senior year he threw for 3,009 yards and 34 touchdowns. That year he rushed for 1,132 yards and 18 touchdowns. All-district, all-region, all-state, all-conference, Player of the Year, Wilson has done it all and he makes very few mistakes. Initially scouts believed he was too small, not fast enough, lacked arm strength, all the same things that were said about Doug Flutie. Flutie was forced to bring his game to Canada where he was regarded as one of the best to play the position in the CFL.
So what has changed in the NFL? With players getting "Bigger, Faster, Stronger", NFL quarterbacks are under constant pressure. Standing in the pocket has become risky business and in order to avoid the rush and make a play quarterbacks must be able to use their athleticism to extend the play. Wilson, Newton, Kaepernick, are three new-age quarterbacks who have been able to do that and as a result have won games and given their teams opportunities to win titles.
Similar to fashion, where narrow ties are out and then in again, scrambling quarterbacks with skills similar to those of "The Mad Scrambler" Fran Tarkenton, are making a comeback. Certainly defensive coordinators will adjust to this change in the game. They will figure it out...