Fresh off Auburn’s undefeated national championship game run, some pro scouts and general managers undoubtedly will developed an unhealthy (and financially destructive) man-crush on Auburn’s dual threat quarterback ahead of the 2011 NFL draft. Just because someone will ignore history and make a multi-million dollar mistake in the months to come doesn’t mean the rest of us have to fall for it again. As they say, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it—as a fan, all we can do is hope that our general manager is an astute historian.
The year was 2006, and another exciting mobile quarterback captured the nation’s imagination in a game for the ages. That was the year that the undefeated Texas Longhorns took on the undefeated Southern California Trojans in the BCS National Championship Game, and at least, according to the pundits, was U.S.C.’s game to lose. But a funny thing happened along the way, as a big brash mobile quarterback with a penchant for making the big play, who apparently didn’t get the memo, single-handedly willed his team to victory. VY compiled gaudy and record breaking stats to capture the championship for Texas—267 yards passing, 200 yards rushing and three total touchdowns, capped off by that memorable gallop that sealed the deal for the Longhorns making one Vince Young an instant legend in the Lone Star State.
And a very rich man.
That season and a half of good football at Texas was enough for the Tennessee Titans to draft Vince Young with the number three overall pick, the first quarterback selected in 2006. The Titans drafted him despite reports of a poor performance on the Wunderlic test, a questionable throwing motion, and despite the fact that their coach, he of the longest tenure in the league at the time, was against the move. The honeymoon lasted less than four seasons, culminating in a tumultuous career characterized by negative press clippings for off the field antics and mediocre play on it.
Vince Young is hardly alone.
Remember Akili Smith, the mobile Oregon quarterback, selected by the Cincinnati Bengals as the third overall pick (and the third quarterback taken as well) in the 1999 NFL draft who was to be the anchor of that franchise for a decade or more to come? I wouldn’t blame you if you did not. After four years the Bengals let him go after only 17 starts. By 2007, the only way to see Mr. Smith play was by purchasing a Calgary Stampeders’ ticket. And while we are talking about mobile dual threat NFL quarterbacks with the last name of Smith, what of former Heisman winning quarterback Troy Smith of The Ohio State University? The former athlete converted to quarterback, drafted in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens in 2007, didn’t wait to get to the NFL to begin his struggles. Facing a college defense with NFL type talent, Smith was part of an Ohio State Buckeyes team that was torched by the Gators in BCS title game by the tune of 41-14, not once using that Heisman winning mobility to escape a sack that this guy remembers. Troy now resides second on the Forty-Niners depth chart, unable to wrestle the job away from another quarterback flop named Smith.
While Vince Young’s performance in the 2006 Rose Bowl was legendary, his professional career has been less than stellar.
And what column on mobile quarterbacks would be complete without a discussion of Jamarcus Russell (nicknamed “Off the Marcus” Russell by one of my favorite columnists, Jason Whitlock)? In High School, as a sophomore, Russell completed 219-of-372 passes for 3,332 yards and 22 touchdowns, and rushed for another 400 yards and five touchdowns. The Raiders fell in love with his size, strong arm, and mobility (by the time he was drafted, it was believed Russell was more of a pocket passer but the scouting report still suggested he could use mobility to pick up first downs and escape the pressure, at least until he ballooned up to offensive lineman size that is), and drafted Russell number one overall in the 2007 draft, signing him to a six year $68 million dollar contract. For their investment, Jamarcus started 31 games completing barely more than fifty percent of his passes (52.1), while throwing 18 TD passes and 23 interceptions. On May 6, 2008, the Raiders cut the overweight JaMarcus Russell, essentially without a contingency plan.
And while some dual threat quarterbacks have experienced some success, not a one has the possession that matters most to the NFL fan—a ring (except for Doug Williams, who was a back up QB in Washington who can accurately be described as a one hit wonder, and I’d argue mostly a pocket passer). As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I’ll never forget the excitement that was the player known as Slash, who lasted 8 painful seasons as the Steelers starting quarterback once he was converted from wide receiver (Kordell insisted on being a quarterback, so he was eventually jettisoned from Pittsbugh with brief stops in Baltimore and Chicago before leaving the NFL for good). Kordell’s problem was that he was erratic with his passes, and was slow to read defenses and release the ball (sounds a lot like another quarterback I’ve seen that plays for my favorite college team). The same can be said of Dante Culpepper, who despite having Randy Moss to throw to for most of his career, never won a ring and saw his career come to an unceremonious ending in Miami replaced by another first round bust by the name of Joey Harrington. And just recently, having been run out of Philadelphia because his erratic passing was part of the reason the Eagles couldn’t win the big one, Donovan McNabb lasted barely more than a handful of starts in a Redskins uniform before being benched in favor of the stalwart that is Rex Grossman.
Not that the Philadelphia Eagles learned their lesson mind you. Exit Donnovan McNabb stage left, enter Michael Vick. In part because of one brilliant Monday night game against Washington and a fourth quarter meltdown by the Giants, myopic NFL fans fell in love with their newest dual threat quarterback, throwing Vick’s name around as an MVP candidate (apparently these same fans have never heard of Tom Brady). While Vick’s season was a good one, a closer look at his numbers reveals the problem for the dual threat mobile quarterback.
In the first half of 2010, Michael Vick was virtually untouchable. He didn’t turn the ball over a single time. In fact, during his four complete games and two partial games, the Eagles committed just a single turnover, and that was on Vick’s third play of the season when Eldra Buckley lost a fumble after a 10-yard reception. The numbers, for the first half, break down like this: 96-153 (62.7%), 1350 yards, 8.82 YPA, 11 TD, 0 INT, 113.4 passer rating; 44 rush, 341 yards, 7.75 YPC, 4 TD; 2 fumbles; led Eagles to 168 points in 4.75 games (35.4 PPG).
Contrast this with his second half numbers. After a season of bone crushing hits and wide circulation of game film on Vick, his numbers slumped. Here they are: 91-141 (64.5%), 1163 yards, 8.23 YPA, 6 TD, 4 INT, 92.6 passer rating; 38 rush, 142 yards, 3 TD; 7 fumbles, 1 lost; led Eagles to 117 points (29.25 PPG). While these numbers are still pretty good, the decline can’t be ignored. And of course, this culminated with a solid but unspectacular flame-out in the first round of the NFL playoffs for Vick and the Eagles in front of their own fans, yet one more dual threat quarterback unable to parlay his “unique” skill set into a serious title run.
While he’s exciting, the breakdown of his first and second half numbers underscore the risk of the dual-thrat quarterback.
Why the struggles for the dual-threat quarterback, at least in terms of winning championships? The reason is simple. The NFL is comprised of the best one half of 1% of all the college players, meaning only the biggest and fastest need apply. While such quarterbacks can rely on their legs to run around walk-ons with 4.9/40 speed in college, that sort of athlete is already selling insurance by the time the ball is kicked off on Sundays. Simply put, no one can take the sort of punishment doled out by the elite NFL player for sixteen games plus the playoffs, which is the same reason that the average lifespan of a running back in the National Football League is but three years. And it’s the reason the overwhelming number of teams that succeed in the playoffs feature big quarterbacks that can sit in the pocket and pick defenses apart with a strong accurate arm. If you don’t believe me, look at the teams that remain in the playoffs today. Each of them features a QB who does almost all of their damage in the pocket, to include players like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, who have each won multiple rings (while it’s true that Big Ben does move to buy time for his receivers to open up, he rarely takes off and runs with the ball). Other recent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks typify the pocket passer who either has a quick release, a strong throwing arm, or both, to include Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Kurt Warner (it’s no coincidence that the Cardinals were in the Super Bowl under Warner in 2008 but a six win bust without him). Even John Elway, who could accurately be described as dual threat quarterback, didn’t win a Super Bowl until later in his career when he was primarily a pocket passer.
Sure, it doesn’t hurt to be able to move a bit to avoid the rush to buy extra time for a wide receiver to get open, but a running quarterback such as Vick is merely biding his time until the next devastating hit has him in the x-ray room. It’s no coincidence that Vick’s numbers declined as the season progressed and the hits mounted culminating in a first round playoff flame-out, and the Eagles would be crazy to pay him big bucks to limp through eight to ten games a season until the surgeries overwhelm him.
Fans love the dual threat quarterbacks because they can be exciting to watch, and because we believe somehow it must be inherently more difficult to prepare for these guys each week. The thing is, though, history does not support the latter notion. But it isn’t just the fans that are fooled, as the teams keep drafting these guys as franchise quarterbacks. Just last year, the Denver Broncos moved up in the draft to take a mobile dual threat quarterback who was a legend at Florida. They did this even though they had just traded for a quarterback (Kyle Orton) and signed another former first round draft choice (Brady Quinn). They took Tim Tebow, despite write ups in scouting reports like this one at draftace.com “Tebow was perfectly suited for Urban Meyer’s offense at Florida, but his skills don’t translate well to the NFL.” For his efforts, once highly coveted Josh McDaniels, the engineer of this move, found himself looking for work less than two seasons removed from taking the Broncos gig. Buyer Beware.
Some team will fall for Cam Newton in the first round of the NFL draft, just like someone will probably go all in on Terrelle Pryor a year from now when he leaves Ohio State. You better just hope it isn’t your NFL team.