During the NFL Draft evaluation process, Quarterbacks are picked apart like pine needles on a Christmas Tree, with everything from their accuracy, arm strength, footwork, anticipation, and leadership skills, all the way to their off-the-field tendencies coming under scrutiny. However, at some point of the process no matter how big and athletic, and where they played in College, they are always placed in one of two categories: are they a mobile Quarterback, or are they a pocket-passer? Over the past decade there has been an influx of supremely athletic, mobile Quarterbacks to enter the league, experiencing varying degrees of success. After all, with the Spread Offense becoming more and more en vogue in the College Game with each passing season, it’s only natural that the NFL will begin to adopt those same schemes, particularly given the amount of money teams invest in players that achieve huge success in said schemes. Why continue to force a square peg into a round hole, when you can implement plays that worked for a kid when he was in school? During the 1980’s and 1990’s the league refused to use those same schemes, mostly because they just didn’t work at the next level, but in this day and age that is simply no longer the case. For every Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb, there is a Vince Young. True, Fran Tarkenton and Randall Cunningham were indeed ahead of their time, but there is something going on this season; after so many young, mobile passers such as Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Colin Kaepernick collectively made their impression over the past few years, they along with many of their contemporaries are struggling to adjust to the league as the league inn turn continues to adjust to them.
At some point of every Quarterback’s career, they must learn how to beat a defense from within the confines of the pocket. That means diagnosing the defense in short order before going through their progressions in an effort to find an open receiver in even shorter order. Most mobile passers tend to rely on their athleticism far too often, particularly early in their careers, and after all, that is what brought them to the dance right? It’s that old saying, “If you got it, flaunt!”. That rhetoric typically works early on, particularly in the cases of Newton, Griffin, and Kaepernick, but after a while, your opponents watch enough tape and formulate a way to stop you, or at the least slow you down. And that folks, is where every Quarterback, mobile or not, must find a way to adapt and evolve, otherwise that old acronym for the NFL (Not For Long) comes into play. And to be fair, all three of those players are in different situations, with some even a victim of circumstances out of their control. It could be a lack of supporting cast, or a conflicting relationship with a coach, or perhaps they just succumbed to injuries from the cumulative effect of all those needless hits sustained when leaving the pocket, but there are a litany of reasons that a mobile Quarterback can fail. However, at the end of the day, they can generally be traced to an overall lack of development in the pocket, which is mandatory for every player at the position, whether they can run a 4.40 or not. Newton has seen arguably the entire supporting cast that earned a 12-4 record and NFC South Title in 2013, deconstructed virtually overnight, leaving the former No. One Overall Pick to shoulder the burden offensively despite a series of nagging injuries to his ankle and back just to name a few. Those injury woes seem like nothing to Griffin, who since suffering a gruesome knee injury during the 2012 Playoffs, has looked like a shell of the Quarterback that won Offensive Rookie of the Year two years ago. And then there is Kaepernick, who after back-to-back trips to the NFC Championship Game, including a narrow defeat in the 2012 Super Bowl, has reached his ceiling as a passer, with his team falling to a 7-8 record at the moment, and out of the playoffs altogether.
Cunningham was a perfect example of this; drafted early in the Second Round of the 1985 NFL Draft (37th Overall), No. 12 spent eleven years in Philadelphia, amassing a 63-43-1 record, taking the Eagles to the postseason five times. In many respects, Cunningham was the precursor to today’s plethora of athletic Quarterbacks, becoming the first player in NFL history to pass for over 20,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards, and was also the first passer to rush for over 900 yards in a campaign. With that said, those Eagles relied far too much on his improvisational skills, which became very apparent once he got hurt, which happened quite frequently towards the end of his stay in the City of Brotherly Love. For the younger crowd, there was once a time in the league where Quarterbacks were nearly decapitated on a weekly basis by opposing defenses, without a penalty flag to be found. And, oh did Randall take his lumps; in 1991, he tore his ACL in the Season Opener, missing the rest of the season, and ultimately robbed him of his tremendous speed an athleticism. Despite starting fifteen and fourteen games respectively in the 1992 and 1994 seasons, Cunningham would go on to miss all but four contests in 1993, and was relegated to that same number in his final term in Philadelphia before being benched in favor of Rodney Peete (remember him?), who was viewed as a better fit for the team’s new West Coast Offense. Shockingly, Cunningham retired from football altogether in 1995, feeling unappreciated from the organization and the fans, and spent the 1996 campaign away from the game. Inevitably, Denny Green approached him to play for the Minnesota Vikings, whom the veteran would end up quarterbacking to a 23-22 upset of the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card Game. It was then in 1998 that he had the season of his life; at the age of 35, the thirteen-year veteran completed 60.9% of his passes for 3,704 yards, a career-high 34 touchdowns and ten interceptions, all the while leading the Vikings to an NFL-best 15-1 record. Minnesota ranked first in the NFL in points scored (34.8), passing yards (280.8), passing touchdowns (41), and net yards per pass attempt (7.8), and though it would be broken the following year, also set a record for most total points scored in a season (556). The same offensive scheme that the coaching staff in Philadelphia felt he was ill-equipped for ended up being the structure in which he would find his greatest success in. Granted, that team was loaded with talent; Cris Carter and Robert Smith were at the top of their games, while a rookie receiver named Randy Moss was turning the league upside down, and an Offensive Coordinator (and future Super Bowl Head Coach) named Brian Billick was calling the shots. But it was Cunningham who was the trigger-man, and it was his evolution as a pocket passer that facilitated that success; he attempted just 32 carries that year for a total of 132 yards, the fewest total he had recorded in any season in which he had played in at least a dozen games.
And there is a myriad of similar stories to reflect upon. Steve Young crashed and burned trying to run around NFL defenders in his early days with the Buccaneers, before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers where he sat behind the great Joe Montana and learned from some of the game’s greatest teachers, such as Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren, and Mike Shanahan. After developing as a pocket passer, he turned in a Hall of Fame career as the Niners’ starter from 1991-1999, winning the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl Championship in 1994. Hell, he even led the league in Passer Rating six times in that span. Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair were a pair of Quarterbacks who gave defenses fits early in their careers, but matured like a fine wine in the pocket. From 1999 to 2003, McNabb rushed for 2,239 yards and seventeen touchdowns before settling into a Quarterback with a stellar 129-51 Touchdown-Interception Ratio from 2004 to 2009. McNair rushed for 2,287 yards and 28 touchdowns from 1997 to 2002, but brought home an MVP award in 2003 on the strength of 3,215 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In both cases, each Quarterback led their respective teams to a narrow Super Bowl defeat, the former in 2004 and the latter in 1999. Michael Vick took the league by storm in 2002, guiding the Falcons to a postseason birth, rushing for 777 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season as the starter. However, a broken leg suffered during the Preseason cut his 2003 campaign to an abbreviated four games, and an overall lack of progression as a passer kept a fairly talented Falcons team that did advance to an NFC Title Game in 2004 away from any sustained success. In six years in Atlanta, Vick rushed for a total of 3,859 yards in 74 games, including an NFL record 1,039 in 2006, but never managed to complete more than 56.4% of his passes, and tossed twenty touchdowns just once. It wasn’t until later in his career when he became the starter in Philadelphia under Andy Reid’s guidance that he evolved into a true threat in the pocket, completing a career-high 62.6% of his passes for 3,018 yards and 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions in 2010. Vince Young on the other hand, parlayed a magical Heisman campaign at Texas which ended in a virtuoso performance in the National Championship Game, only to lead the Titans to the Playoffs as a rookie in 2006, garnering Offensive Rookie of the Year honors along the way. Unfortunately, he became a casualty of a bitter feud with Head Coach Jeff Fisher, who benched him in favor of Kerry Collins, a 36-year old journeyman, who led the team to the best record in the AFC in 2008(13-3). Young would reclaim his job the following season, but would be out of Tennessee after the 2010 term, and out of the league altogether by 2012.
And that of course brings us back to the current generation, as Newton, Griffin, and Kaepernick have each hit road blocks in their development as passers. In his first two seasons in the league, Newton was a statistical juggernaut, accounting for 9,367 total yards and 62 touchdowns. However, that production didn’t translate into victories, as the Panthers went just 13-19 in his 32 starts. Then things changed in 2013, as Newton was asked to remain in the pocket more, and allow arguably the deepest backfield in the league to handle the rushing load. The results were a 12-4 record, and the best season of his career; Newton achieved career-highs in Completion Percentage (61.7%), Passing Touchdowns (24), and Total QBR (56.17). Furthermore, the Carolina Offense finally looked like a cohesive unit, ranking eleventh overall in rushing (126.6), fourth in turnovers committed (19), and tenth in yards per drive (29.8). However, in the Offseason, Management parted ways with four of the team’s top five leading receivers, and both starting Offensive Tackles. Furthermore, their vaunted depth in the Backfield evaporated with injuries to the likes of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert, leaving Newton again to play the role of one man band. During the Summer he underwent surgery on his ankle, which has clearly given him problems throughout the campaign, and a recent back injury suffered in an unfortunate car accident has further diminished his physical gifts. As a result, his accuracy has regressed (58.3%), as has his yards per attempt (7.0), which is a clear indication that he doesn’t quite trust his weapons, and doesn’t have the time to find them. In this case, how can he grow as a pocket passer, when everything has been out of his hands? In Kaepernick’s case, it may just be that he has become a product of inflated expectations. In his second year in the league, the rangy passer took over for an injured Alex Smith, and thrived in the 49ers’ zone-read, pistol formation offense, so much to the point that Head Coach Jim Harbaugh chose to keep Kaepernick as the starter after Smith had recuperated from his injury. It was an unpopular move given that Smith led San Francisco to their first postseason birth since 2002 a year before, but that faith paid off as the young Quarterback led the Niners to the brink of a Super Bowl Title in 2012. A second consecutive NFC Championship Game further cemented him in the minds of many pundits around the league as a star in the making, but this current campaign has been an unmitigated disappointment for the fourth-year veteran. Thus far, he has established a career-high in rushing yards (576) and is on his way to post a career mark in passing yards (3,165), but that hasn’t parlayed into success; Kaepernick has already thrown ten interceptions, nearly as many as the two previous seasons combined, with by far the lowest net yards per attempt of his career to boot (5.64). Part of the issue is that he’s just holding on to the ball too long, evidenced by the 51 sacks that he has sustained, the highest figure in the league. At this point, he’s running more and throwing less due to the beating he’s taking in the pocket, and as a result his team is 7-8 and eliminated from the Playoffs. With defenses keen on slowing down the pistol, Harbaugh has utilized him far more conventionally, which is precisely where he has struggled.
And of course this brings us to Robert Griffin III, RG3, the highly touted Heisman-winner, who lit up the league as a rookie and created a movement in the Nation’s Capital. Few Quarterbacks have ever had the success that he enjoyed in their first voyage into NFL waters. With Mike Shanahan calling the shots, and his son Kyle creatively incorporating a multitude of plays and concepts from Baylor, Griffin absolutely flourished, completing 65.6% of his passes for 3,200 yards (7.05 net yards/attempt), twenty touchdowns to five interceptions, with a Total QBR of 71.41. But where he really gave defenses fits was in the Read Option, where he rushed for a rookie Quarterback record 815 yards and seven touchdowns on 120 carries. However, then came the NFC Wild Card Game against the Seahawks where shortly after establishing a 14-0 lead, Griffin tore multiple ligaments in his knee, knocking him out of the contest, and the Redskins out of the Playoffs. A whirlwind rehab ensued, shamelessly enhanced by a ridiculous amount of media coverage, culminating in the young star of the franchise miraculously starting in Week One against the Eagles. However, his Sophomore Campaign was in stark contrast to the one before it; visibly hampered by the lingering effects of the knee injury, RG3 was a pale reflection of the playmaker he was as a rookie; he threw the ball more (456 attempts), completed less (60.1%), and even fewer down field (5.93 net yards/attempt), threw less touchdowns (16) and more interceptions (12), and took more sacks (38), all in two fewer games before being benched in favor of Kirk Cousins. He also couldn’t find success on the ground, rushing for 326 fewer yards than in 2012, and to this day still hasn’t rushed for another touchdown. Washington, in turn slumped to a dreadful 3-13 record, which cost both Shanahan’s their jobs. Now with another calender year removed from that fateful knee injury and a new Head Coach in the form of Jay Gruden, the story has yet to change; the Redskins still languish in last place (4-11), while Griffin has endured a pair of benchings, again in favor of Cousins and most recently Colt McCoy of all people. Gruden has gone to great lengths to protect Griffin from himself, dumping virtually all of the plays that the Shanahans used to great success from Baylor, choosing to forcefully grow RG3 into a conventional pocket passer. And that is where this mess is at the moment; in eight starts, Griffin has completed a career-high 69.4% of his attempts, but has averaged a mere 5.70 net yards per attempt, thrown three touchdowns to four interceptions, and taken a whopping 30 sacks on 173 pass attempts. That’s 14.8% of his drop-backs, folks. Try as he may, Gruden has been completely unable to correct his Quarterbacks’ flawed mechanics and footwork, nor his shoddy decision-making. Perhaps this is simply just who Griffin is? Perhaps he will never evolve into a more well-rounded passer. Maybe he’ll get the chance, maybe he won’t, but either way, he’s at a career crossroads where many comparable Quarterbacks have been. Which way do you think he will he go? We always welcome feedback from you, our valued customers, so please feel free to express your thoughts in the Comment Section below, so you can sound off on how you feel about the stagnated evolution of these young, promising players.