Will we look back at 2012 as the year the position changed forever?
This has been a very interesting season in the NFL, particularly for the Quarterback position. The incredible play of several rookies - including Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and RG3 - have re-ignited debates about the position and what the future will look like. Many are already heralding Luck, Wilson, Griffin as the next wave of great QBs, despite it being their first season. Discussion have centered around the read-option and the pistol formations made famous in college football circles. And while I don't have a flux capacitor in my closet, I'm going to take a look into the future of the position.
Pocket Passers vs Mobile QBs
Really, the argument boils down to the style of play of these quarterbacks. Guys like Manning, Brees, Brady and Ryan are what you'd consider to be traditional pocket passers. Meanwhile, guys like Rodgers, Newton, Wilson and RG3 fit into the mobile category - though Rodgers fits well into either category. The prior typically stay put in the pocket and distribute the ball to their playmakers. And while mobile QBs will also play out of the pocket, they will also tuck it and run anywhere from 10 to 15 times per game, depending on the offense - effectively making them a key playmaker.
Proponents of the "new wave" argue that it's like having another weapon on the offense, making it that much harder to stop. And there is certainly a good bit of truth to that. Guys like Newton, Wilson and RG3 regularly break off long runs and often tuck it and run the ball into the end zone themselves. Opponents are quick to point out the obvious: this style of play exposes your QB to more hits and more opportunities for injury. Falcons fans are more than familiar with this concept, as we spent many years watching Michael Vick sustain hits and play partial seasons. In fact, in his career, he's only ever had a single season where he played in all 16 games. Likewise, RG3 has already spent time on the sidelines and even Aaron Rodgers has spent time watching the game due to injuries sustained while running the ball.
Is the mobility worth the trade off of potential injuries? Consider this: if your team is in the thick of the playoff race and a 10-6 record will get you in while 9-7 sits you out, losing your star player for a single game could be the difference between making it to the playoffs or not. It might be key to have a great backup QB if you plan on having your starter run the ball consistently.
Ultimately, this question will be answered by each player. While a player like Newton - who is large and can sustain many hits, may thrive - guys like RG3 who aren't built for constant hits may suffer in the long run.
Key QB Traits
Before we make declarations about the future of the position, I think it's also worth noting what traits are still considered to be important to be a top tier QB in the NFL. I don't see these traits changing, despite the trends of this season.
First, an NFL QB needs to be intelligent. I'm not speaking purely about IQ, but about the entire body of intelligence. The ability to read modern defenses, make adjustments and react quickly are critical to the NFL game. QBs with good anticipation will make tight passes while those who don't end up with costly interceptions.
Second, for better or worse, NFL QBs are expected to be leaders. They should inspire a higher level of play out of their teammates and be the "first in and last out" when it comes to practices and meetings. Talent can compensate a little, but eventually QBs without leadership qualities tend to flame out of this league.
Finally, NFL QBs need to be able to make all the throws. They don't have to have a rocket for an arm, but they do need to be able to confidently throw the out, the go and all of the other deep patterns that spread the field out.
While these traits are neither hindered/helped by being a pocket passer vs. a mobile QB, I believe these traits will not go away as a result of perceived changes in the position.
Lost in the discussion of whether the position of Quarterback is changing is the discussion of what defenses will do in response. Falcons fans saw this first-hand when Vick was the hottest player in the league. He was considered "unstoppable" by many pundits due to his amazing speed and ability to cut quickly. However, the Buccaneers began devoting a single player as a "spy" to counter Vick and found tremendous success in doing so. Quickly, the rest of the league adopted the same technique and Vick's effectiveness was impacted. Not every team was successful, but many started to do the same thing as the Bucs to slow the QB down.
While the pistol and read-option offenses are not new, many NFL coordinators don't have a lot of experience game planning against them. Now that guys like Mike Nolan have gotten some real experience against these guys, you can be guaranteed they are already drawing up plans to limit their effectiveness. For those who follow the college game, the read-option has been countered for years by using athletic linebackers/ends and giving specific player assignments on "option" downs. Again, it's not a fix-all and not every team finds success, but the best ones typically do.
So, before we rewrite the position, let's remember that NFL defenses have a history of adjusting to the latest trends and finding new ways to limit the damage. Additionally, defenders are getting faster and stronger and their ability to lay bone-crunching hits on mobile QBs is only going to increase (see Weatherspoon vs. RG3 for an example).
It's hard to say for sure, but I believe the QB position is evolving, but not in the way that most people believe. While pundits are currently applauding offenses like the pistol and read-option, the real evolution is the athleticism of QBs. Guys like Aaron Rodgers have already figured this out: rather than using that athleticism to become another "weapon", they're using it to buy another second or two to let their other weapons get open. What does this mean for traditional pocket QBs like Matt Ryan? Honestly, I don't think they'll be going away anytime soon. The reality is that smart QBs that can make all the throws are harder to find than we make them out to be. And that key leadership trait is proving more and more important, especially in the light of guys who have shown to be lacking in that department.
One more prediction for you: QBs that are currently running the pistol and read-option as a main crux of their offense will struggle more in the next few years. We've already seen it with Cam Newton: as you move them away from these college offenses to a more traditional NFL offense - with all it's complexities - their growth will have been hindered by running these more simplistic offenses. It has nothing to do with intelligence - but everything to do with experience. Guys like Andrew Luck will not see quite the same setbacks, as they were already running pro-style offenses in college.
What do you think? Is the position phasing guys like Ryan and Brady out? Or does the risk of injury make guys like Newton and Griffin more of an anomaly than a predominant trend?