Thursday, September 18, 2014

To Run Or Gun? The QB Quandry

The modern era of football has seen two opposing ideas worked into playbooks as if it were imperative they co-exist. I’m talking about attacking the defense with either a running quarterback or a passing one, which to outsiders might seem as trivial as casting a blonde or brunette Bond girl. Let’s just agree that both work.

Of course, there’s no reason why a quarterback can’t be both, that is, an excellent runner who's also able to fire a 30-yard bullet between defenders arms, bobbing helmets and spittle. Seattle’s Russell Wilson might just be the best example of such a player, though Washington’s Robert Griffin III seemed destined for greatness before his various injuries. 

Griffin is really the ideal case study for offensive football aficionados because while his running has at times been electrifying, not since Shane Falco fell for Brooke Langton's character in The Replacements has a QB also looked so vulnerable. In short, the more mobile RG3 has been, the more likely it seemed he’d be immobilized.

So what’s the end game then?

Sliders and surfers

Many NFL coaches appear enamored with the read option, in which, the QB observes defensive movements and reacts with a run or pass accordingly. It can be tougher for some defenses to follow this than a Belichick press conference, which is why the approach finally and vehemently took hold in the pro game. But still, the question remains: is it necessary to over expose a team's most important player in the open field in this way?

Some QBs have a knack for avoiding trouble and that’s the trick, isn’t it? As a head coach, you’re less likely to feel your heart leap into your throat on a third down scramble if your play-caller gets down, slides, scoots out of bounds, or somehow manages to transport himself through time like the Silver Surfer. If only he were eligible to play.

Wilson is not only good at avoiding sacks in the Fran Tarkenton mould, but he’s clever enough to know when to step up in the pocket, when to roll out, or when to toss the ball up to the fans. This ability to read the strength of the rush seems imperative to the strategy, and yet too many young QBs are determined to counter-attack before the defense actually reaches them. I’d put RG3 in this category, along with rookie Johnny Manziel, one-year wonder Tim Tebow, and Colin Kaepernick might just be the captain of the group.

Kaepernick’s match-up against the more traditional pocket passer Jay Cutler on Sunday was truly gripping for those gripped by such differing styles, because both men are quite cool under pressure. And yet, each handle respective defensive surges in unique ways. On Sunday, at least, Kaepernick was hasty, eager to escape the pocket whenever he could to gallivant into space as he’s prone to do. Sometimes it’s devastating, other times he takes a hit, or worse, carelessly loses the ball. This, at least from the coach’s perch is devastating, and avoidable.

Cut and dry

By contrast, Cutler tends to unleash wild rockets into mosh pits of players, where you’d be more likely to see Eddie Vedder climbing out than a triumphant wide receiver with the ball in hand. But he persists with this mode because his arm strength gives him the confidence to do so. I’m sure his very cool hair gave him the pluck to ask out Kristin Cavallari too. Such is the orbit of Planet Cutler. 

All kidding aside, Cutler mostly sticks to the pocket and finds open men – often incredibly large Madison Avenue size men, in the case of the current Chicago unit. He runs, only as needed, and he did so splendidly against the 49ers. It was his patience on offense, you could argue, that helped the Bears make their comeback. Conversely, it was Kaepernick’s lack of it, that contributed to his team’s undoing.

The Elway

Of course, running quarterbacks are not new, nor are those who can both run and throw. I think of John Elway during these types of discussions because, while there may never have been a better ball thrown than the one delivered by Denver’s great No.7, there may also have never been a signal-caller at his size, who proved more exciting when rumbling into the secondary (maybe Ben Roethlisberger, though he's slightly bigger). Elway wasn’t fast and at times looked rather cumbersome, but he ran opportunistically and cleverly, and used his bulk to get down field. It was also never for show, but rather was about results and this is an important distinction.

Not that the likes of Kaepernick, or even the Jets’ Geno Smith is seeking more than positive yardage, though there is an air of showmanship about some of the modern day QBs which perhaps fuels their ambition to leave the the pocket. At least a player like Aaron Rodgers has perfected his passing from back in the turret, which helps to make his rushes more of a threat.

After all, the threat of the run can be just as lethal because it makes the defense uneasy. RG3 basically patented this threat two years ago, and such was his prowess on the read, that even his former coach seemed uneasy. But that’s pure conjecture of course: Mike Shanahan always looks like a guy who’s conducted some business in the men's room only to find there’s no toilet paper left.

Forever Young

In or out of the pocket, the aim should be finding an advantage. From the warmth of the couch, some running plays look grossly premeditated, or even forced in some instances, and with a few players working the option, that’s surely not beneficial to an offense. 

I’m sure that even the Candlestick rambler, Steve Young, weighed up his options on each play. He talks about reading through progressions all the time as an ESPN analyst, which makes me think that even when it looked like Young was eager to burn rubber, he always kicked the tires on the possibility of stretching the defense with a well place throw. On his most famous run he shaped to throw, it wasn't there, so he ducked, glanced up and took off.

Young ran for more than 500 yards and threw for 3,500 more in 1992, according to numbers. By no means does every QB have this capability, as it requires a combo of athleticism and awareness. However, the best quick steppers are usually also the calmest thinkers too, and that's not always a quality marked in draft board margins. But maybe it needs to be.

1 comment:

  1. I'm quite sure Fran Tarkenton never spelled his name with a "k" ;- /