Written By Jason Voorhees
The NFL is an ever-evolving sport, and today's athletes are no different.
Athletes of past and present share two things in common: A desire to win and a commitment to staying in shape to be the best at their respective positions.
The Quarterback position has long been considered the most difficult to succeed in within the NFL. Not only is it the most difficult, but it also remains the most important one on the football field.
With the emergence of better athletes in pro sports today (due to technology and better training), many play styles have been adopted to adapt to the changes in strategy. With that being said, no position in sports has evolved more than the Quarterback Position.
Since the NFL's inception in August of 1920, countless star players have left their mark in the league and entertained fans worldwide. The NFL Hall of Fame enshrines the NFL's best of the best. The HOF comprises players, coaches, owners, and critical contributors that have left that mark.
As of 2019, there are 326 members in the NFL Hall of Fame, 34 having played Quarterback. When we think Quarterback, we think of passing yards; touchdown passes, interceptions wins, playoff wins, and Super Bowls. However, as the NFL game has evolved, so has the Quarterback Position.
The classic "drop back" Quarterback, who was once the norm, has now become a thing of the past. Slowly but surely, NFL QB's have become a "dual-threat" on the battlefield. When taking a closer look at this dual-threat (which can be described by the word mobile-meaning able to escape and extend plays), a few different styles have evolved.
The "mobile" Quarterback has gone through numerous style changes as well as philosophical differences. When looking back at these dual-threat signal-callers' history, we think of Tobin Rote, Bobby Douglass, Fran Tarkenton, and Steve Grogan as being the best of the early ones.
Tobin Rote was a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers during the 1950s. Rote led the NFL in rushing yards by a quarterback six times (1951, 1954-1958) and his 37 Rushing Touchdowns ranks sixth all-time by an NFL signal-caller. What was even more incredible about Rote is that he led his TEAM in rushing three times, during an era where running the ball was a grind it out 3.0 yards per carrying, a cloud of dust down your throat approach style.
He also led his team in rushing TD's five times. The two-time pro bowler is still the only Quarterback to lead an AFL and NFL team to a championship. Rote was one of the earliest examples of dual-threat prowess.
While Rote was the earliest example, Fran Tarkenton was the architect of the "true running" quarterback. Nicknamed the "Mad Scrambler," Tarkenton was indeed a player ahead of his time. Fran produced 3,674 career rushing yards and 32 rushing TD's during what was known as the "STATUE" era of quarterbacks. Statue refers to the drop back in the pocket and waits until someone came open or threw the ball away style.
Tarkenton remains sixth all-time in Quarterback rushing yards. Tarkenton was also lethal through the air while taking the dual-threat motto to new heights. He led the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls during his time there. His passing stats were among the best when he retired from the NFL in 1981 and stood as records at the time.
Other Quarterbacks were mobile and fleet on their feet as the game evolved. The Patriots Steve Grogan was also considered a great escape artist of his time. During his career, he compiled 2,176 Rushing yards and 36 Rushing TD's. Grogan once held the NFL record for rushing TD's by a Quarterback for a season with (12), a record finally broke by Cam Newton in 2011 with 14.
1978 was his best all-around season when he had 539 rushing yards while posting 5 TDs.
The Dual Threat evolution would not be complete without mentioning Bobby Douglass. The former Chicago Bears standout took rushing to new extremes. In 1972, Douglass rushed for a single-season record of 968 Rushing Yards for a QB while scoring 8 TD's on only 141 carries. Michael Vick would eventually break this record; however, Bobby set his record while only playing 14 games, two less than Vick. He also averaged 69.1 yards per game.
Other notable quarterbacks that encompassed the dual-threat narrative during this age were Greg Landry, Roger Staubach, Jim Plunkett, and Vince Evans. As the years passed, the evolution was once again changing.
In 1985, the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Randall Cunningham in the second round of the NFL draft. Cunningham would change the Quarterback position forever while taking "mobile" to the next level. During Randall's career, he amassed 4,982 yards rushing on 775 carries, a 6.4 Yards Per Carry Average, and 35 Rushing Touchdowns. Cunningham's star power as a dual-threat in rushing and passing earned him the nickname "The Ultimate Weapon."
During his career, Cunningham came close to winning the league's MVP award twice. He also was responsible for single-handedly carrying the Eagles during most of his time there due to a lack of supporting cast and a weak offensive line.
In 1990, Randall rushed for 924 yards while scoring five rushing TDs with an 8.0 Yards Per Carry clip. However, not only could Cunningham run the rock, but he could also air it out with the best of them. It was reported that during routine practice, that he flung a ball 80 yards in the air, which may still be a record. It even got crazier when he punted a ball for a record 92 yards in one game against the Giants, which further highlighted the athleticism of the "Ultimate Weapon."
1990 was a fantastic year for Randall, but the most impressive thing about that year was that along with the 924 yards/5Rushing Td's, he also threw for 30TD's/13INT for 3,466 Yards with a long of 95 yards. That 95-yard pass came in a game against the Buffalo Bills, where he miraculously made Bruce Smith miss a sack and safety, while then scrambling the entire width of the end zone to the other side before heaving a bomb that WR Fred Barnett caught at the 50-yard line, which he took for a touchdown.
There is no telling how good Randall could have been if he was surrounded with more talent. He also had Buddy Ryan as his head coach, who knew as much about offense as I do about algebra, and that is very little. Cunningham was also injured for two entire seasons, as he tore both ACLs during two different years. Later in his career, Cunningham joined the Minnesota Vikings, where he enjoyed his best overall season as a pro. During the 1998 season, Randall compiled a 13-1 record while throwing for 3,704 yards, 34 TD's (career-high), while chipping in 132 yards rushing and two rushing TD's.
A few Quarterbacks have since surpassed Cunningham's rushing records. There have been many dual threats to star in this league since him; however, he was a player before his time, and he definitely ushered in the new age of "Mobile" Quarterbacks that we see today.
After Randall, many other great quarterbacks were able to use both threats on the field.
Steve Young, who still holds the career passer rating for Quarterbacks, chipped in a fantastic 4,239 rushing yards, 43 rushing TD's and 6.0 Yards Per Carry Average. Young became the first of the dual-threat QB's to lead his team to a championship. This was always the argument that "mobile" or "running" style QB's cannot win Super Bowls. Well, I think Young proved that theory wrong. Although I will say that Quarterbacks should primarily star through the air, and no one was more proficient at both than Steve Young.
John Elway was also a master of the escape and extending plays with his legs. This is sometimes a forgotten part of John's game. During his career, Elway amassed 3,417 rushing yards and 33 TD's on 774 carries, which was second all-time to Cunningham. He is also the postseason leader in rushing yards by a quarterback with 461 yards and six touchdowns. His four rushing touchdowns in the Super Bowl remains an NFL record.
Ironically, in 1998 the same year that Randall Cunningham was having his resurgence in Minnesota, the Philadelphia Eagles once again drafted a "dual-threat" running QB in Donovan McNabb. He was serenaded to a chorus of boos on draft day, but Eagles fans would soon be regretting their anger. McNabb quickly silenced his critics as he became the team's starting quarterback later that season.
During his career as the Eagles starting QB, he amassed 3,459 Rushing Yards and 29 TDs. However, in a cruel twist of fate, he spent most of his career carrying the Eagles on his shoulders, much the way that Randall once did during his tenure. McNabb suffered from a lack of talent with his supporting cast, especially at the WR position.
In 2004, the one season that McNabb was given a top wide receiver in Terrell Owens, he took the Eagles to the Super Bowl, coming one field goal short of the Eagles first championship.
Donovan McNabb was a more dynamic player than Randall Cunningham ever was, although Randall was probably the better athlete. During his career, McNabb threw for 217 TD's/117INT, along with 37,276 yards. Donovan never wanted to be known as a "running quarterback," always refuting debates and maintaining that he strictly wanted to be considered a drop-back passer. However, there is no denying that his skills on the ground gave him a better chance of winning and enhanced his NFL career. He is the most accomplished quarterback in Eagles history, holding almost every passing record for the franchise.
Around the same time McNabb was coming up through the ranks, his counterpart Michael Vick was emerging as a multi-dimensional star in Atlanta. Mike Vick could be looked at on the opposite side of the spectrum from McNabb, though. Vick now holds almost every career rushing record by a quarterback, and he once again set a new benchmark for dual-threat mobile passers.
Vick rushed for 6,109 yards, 36 TD's, and a 7.0 Yards Per Carry Average during his career. The yards and average are both NFL records while he is third in touchdowns behind Cam Newton and Steve Young. Vick also threw for 22,464 yards passing and 143 TDs. We cannot forget about Mike Vick, when showing his dominant NFL career as a running QB, that he missed three entire seasons in his prime, during his prison sentence after being convicted for dogfighting.
Vick was the fastest of all the QB's as he ran a 4.30 40 yard dash. This speed, combined with his exceptional awareness, probably made him the greatest escape artist in NFL history...up until now. Mike Vick could be considered a human highlight reel on any given Sunday. The plays that Vick made took your breath away. Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb were a part of the new age of dual-threat weapons to enter the NFL.
Other quarterbacks that showed off both skills included Kordell Stewart (Slash) and Daunte Culpepper. This group spawned a new mobile quarterback age that seemed to use running as more of a second option. This next-generation group used the pass to set up the run. Players like Russel Wilson, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Alex Smith, and many others arrived on the scene and showed new mobile awareness adaptations.
The best of the bunch was Cam Newton and Russel Wilson. In Cam Newton's first season, he passed for 4,051 yards and 21 TD's while rushing for 706 yards and an NFL record 14 TD's. In nine seasons, Newton compiled 4,806 rushing yards and 58 Touchdowns on 5.1 Yards Per Carry Average. While Cam showed off his rushing skills, he had even more success through the air, which was on point with this new "dual-threat" phenomenon. The prototype QB sets up the run by using the pass.
Another Quarterback that showed off this talent and continues to be the crème de la crème is Russel Wilson. Wilson does not have quite the resume on the ground that Newton does, but he has undoubtedly made up for it through the air and became the latest of dual-threat weapons to win a Super Bowl. Wilson has rushed for 3,962 yards, 19 TD's and a 5.6 yards per carrying average. He has thrown for 29,332 yards, 224 TD's, and only 68 INT through the air. This includes 2 (4,000 yard passing seasons) and 6 of ten years over 3,400 yards.
After a decade dominated by QB's named Brady, Brees, Manning and Rothlisberger, there has been a significant renaissance of the NFL's mobile Quarterbacks. Brady and Brees were predominantly drop back passers that operated out of the traditional pocket philosophy.
The new wave of "dual mobile threats" seems to be operating as a hybrid version of this philosophy. They seem to have emphasized developing skills in passing the ball and running it with equal energy. Whether it is to escape incoming sack artists, buying more time till a receiver gets open, or extending a play, or making a broken play into a significant gain, these skills are widespread and on full display throughout the NFL.
Today's mobile quarterbacks are much different. They excel at both sides but seem to have a better idea of when to use which. There is less reckless abandon involved, while they use a more systematic approach. No Quarterback has exemplified this phenomenon more than Lamar Jackson.
The Baltimore Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson in 2018 with the 32nd overall pick. Jackson starred at Louisville in College, where he won the Heisman Trophy and starred as a dual-threat his entire college career. There was talk coming out of college that he did not possess the smarts or skills to transition to being a pro quarterback in the NFL. No one ever questioned his athleticism or that he could make it in the NFL, just that he may not be a good quarterback.
Well, after 2019, Lamar Jackson is making all of those doubters eat crow. After a rookie season in which he only started seven games, the Ravens traded away long term starter Joe Flacco in the offseason. Everyone knew that Lamar was an elite athlete and that Jackson could star as a running quarterback, but no one could have envisioned Lamar doing what he did in 2019. He is on pace to be the de facto NFL MVP of the league in only his second season.
Jackson has been nothing short of a human cheat code. If this was Nintendo, you would be doing many up, down, down, left, right, went, right, B, A, B, And Start. Lamar has filled up a stat sheet like icing in an oreo double stuffed cookie with one game to go. 3,127 Yards Passing, 36TD/6INT, 1,206 Rushing Yards, 6.85YPC, 7 Rushing TD's. These numbers are mind-blowing. The only Quarterback to come close was Randall Cunningham, who everyone agrees was ahead of his time.
Nonetheless, what Lamar Jackson is doing has raised the bar once again as the benchmark for mobile QB's continues to evolve. Other QB's that have shown the new dual-threat combination in today's game include Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, and to a lesser extent Carson Wentz, Pat Mahomes, Dak Prescott, and Jimmy Garrapolo. But none of these are on the same level as Lamar.
In conclusion, there has been a significant shift over the years in the mobile dual-threat philosophy and the number of quarterbacks that employ this type of strategy when playing. From the early pioneers of Fran Tarkenton and Tobin Rote. To the game changer and first "Ultimate Weapon" Randall Cunningham. To the first ever cheat code Michael Vick. And now the unstoppable Lamar Jackson.
The mobile dual-threat has evolved and matured into what it has become today. As the seasons go on, it should be interesting to see how this phenomenon continues to change before our eyes as more college quarterbacks try to mimic their game to Lamar. Only one question remains...will this style ever become the dominant quarterback style in the league, and will more dual-threat quarterbacks win Super Bowl championships. The story is yet to be written, but it should be an exciting ride. What a journey it has been.
About Jason Voorhees
Jason resides in Norristown, PA and writes about all things sports and heavy metal music.