My father and I were sitting on the couch watching the Redskins fight for their playoff lives against the Baltimore Ravens. The rookie signal caller Robert Griffin III had at that point passed for over 200 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 34 more, when, on the pivotal drive of the game, he went down with a knee injury. He had already suffered a concussion earlier in the season against the Atlanta Falcons. One of the announcers observed that Griffin was holding onto the ball too long. I remarked to my father, “You know something you will never hear an announcer say? Tom Brady is holding onto the ball too long.” As he shares in my distaste for the Patriots, he responded, “Is that because he is smart, or because he is afraid to get hit?” I paused for a moment. “Both. But does the reason really matter?”
The conversation stuck with me, as it related to one of the major philosophical questions surrounding the NFL over the last decade and a half. How should quarterbacks play? Should they run around and make plays with their feet, while also increasing their risk of getting injured and making poor, off-balance throws? Or should they sit in the pocket, take the quick strike if it’s open, and if not, throw the ball away and live to fight another day? Or is the NFL a place where both types of players can thrive and succeed?
In January of 2000, my family drove 17 hours to New Orleans to see our Virginia Tech Hokies play in their first National Championship; a Sugar Bowl matchup with the heavily favored Florida State Seminoles. I was 12, my brother Jordan was 9. The Hokies had been led to a perfect season behind the play of a freshman quarterback named Michael Vick. Vick had led the nation in passing efficiency with a mark of 180.4, the third highest of all time. He threw for 1840 yards and 12 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions that year. But what everyone would remember about his season was that he rushed for 580 yards and 8 touchdowns, and did so in thrilling fashion. He finished third in the Heisman voting that year, tied for the highest ever finish by a freshman with the great Hershel Walker until Johnny Football took this year’s.
There had been plenty of running quarterbacks at the college level before Vick, but never before had the country seen someone quite like him. He was a player who, with a seemingly effortless flick of his left wrist, could hurl a 70-yard spiral downfield and land it in the arms of the speedy wideout Andre Davis. Or he could take off running, and because he was always the best athlete on the field, no one could catch him. His entrance into the NFL a year and a half later would mark the beginning of the era of dual threat quarterbacks at the professional level. His eventual arrest for dogfighting in 2007 would shock the country and the football world.
My brother and I wept as the first half wound down with Virginia Tech trailing by 21 points. They cut it to 14 just before halftime, and Vick eventually led them all the way back to a 29-28 lead which they carried into the fourth quarter. A fumble by Vick and Ronyell Whitaker’s complete inability to cover Peter Warrick led the eventual 46-29 defeat. While this loss will always weigh heavily on the hearts of my family and other Virginia Tech fans, for the rest of the nation it was but a footnote in the fascinating and controversial story of Michael Vick.
Vick’s career has in many ways summarized the debate over rushing quarterbacks. Some would characterize his NFL career as a success, others believe he has been a disappointment. In his NFL career, Vick has thrown for 20,077 yards and 122 touchdowns, with 81 interceptions and a completion percentage of 56. This lands him at number 98 all time in yards, 100 all time in TDs, number 109 in completion percentage, and number 142 all time in interceptions thrown. He has also rushed for 5,526 yards (the most ever by a QB) and 34 touchdowns, with 36 fumbles (with what seems like 30 of those occurring this season). He has been to the pro-bowl four times. Those numbers can be interpreted in different ways, and used on both sides of the Michael Vick debate.
Inevitably, race is also a factor in the debate over dual threat quarterbacks. And race is inextricably bound to the story of Michael Vick, as it will be in the story of Robert Griffin III, who was recently called a “cornball brother” by ESPN’s Rob Parker. For some, it is too easy to say that white quarterbacks sit in the pocket and make smart, boring throws, black quarterbacks run around and are exciting but they get hurt and throw picks. Obviously this is not a reflection of reality as Warren Moon has the fifth most passing yards of all time, and the best dual threat quarterback in NFL history is a white Mormon named Steve Young.
But for many, this oversimplified categorization of quarterbacks based on their race has changed. Everyone seems to recognize the passing talents of Cam Newton and RG3, as well as the rushing abilities of Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill. But just imagine for a moment that Tim Tebow was a black quarterback. Would his popularity go down and the calls for him to quit trying to throw and just play running back or tight end go up? It is impossible to know for sure, but it seems highly probable to me that a black quarterback who shared Tebow’s ineptitude throwing the ball would not see the same sort of popularity. Would the perception of Michael Vick’s career accomplishments be different if instead of being a convicted dogfighting felon, he was a white missionary with a WWJD bracelet?
Perhaps, but back to the fundamental question: Is dual-threat an effective way to play quarterback in the NFL? After the short discussion with my dad, I watched some tape of Tom Brady at the 2000 NFL combine. He was one of the most unathletic quarterbacks ever to participate. And I began to wonder if Tom Brady would have been as successful as he is if he were faster. Would Peyton Manning? Given the temptation to expand the pocket and out-run pass rushers, would the two best quarterbacks of our generation have been more prone to making poor decisions and less likely to find the quick strike? Would Dan Marino? So I decided to test the hypothesis in the best way I could. I compiled a list of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks, and I graphed them with their passer rating as the Y axis and their 40 time at their rookie combine as the X axis to see if there was a correlation. As NFL quarterbacks get slower, does their passer rating improve? Here is the resulting graph:
The answer is: not really. The data point at the far left is Michael Vick, who ran a blazing 4.33 at his rookie combine, the fastest ever by a quarterback. The next one to the left is RG3, who ran a 4.41, and is currently tied for the league lead in passer rating. To the far right you see Tom Brady, (whose numbers have gone up slightly since this chart was made) who is the other person tied for the league in passer rating, and ran a glacial 5.22 at the 2000 combine, good for slowest in the NFL. So the NFL’s two best passers are its fastest and slowest quarterback. The black line in the middle is the trend line of the data, but as you can tell by looking at the scatter of the data points, it is slight and not statistically significant.
Very little is made about Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton extending plays for their respective teams. But for smaller players like RG3 and Michael Vick, the injury concern is a much more real one. Vick has not slid a single time in his NFL career. He has also only played a full 16 game season once. Griffin has been knocked out of two games so far this year, and as Vick would surely tell him, as you get older and begin to lose a step, those big hits get harder and harder to outrun. So how do you balance using your gifts and protecting your career, and is it even possible to do so? Is playing the position the way that men like Griffin and Vick play it just inherently risky, and that must be accepted for all it offers from both a football and an entertainment standpoint? If you immediately took away all of the times Michael Vick has left the pocket in his career and instead substituted a quick and simple throwaway, would he have been a better quarterback?
Griffin stayed on the field for a few plays after the injury, but soon he could no longer stand. The Redskins white rookie backup Kirk Cousins entered the game with 45 seconds left, down 8 points. He threw a sharp pass across the middle, and moments later, a perfect touch pass to Pierre Garcon in the endzone. On the two-point conversion attempt, Cousins dropped back, then ran it up the wide open middle by himself to tie the game, which they then won in overtime. Cousins ran a 4.93 at the 2012 combine, slightly slower than Eli Manning’s.
I love good play calling.