* It Starts With The Granddaddy of Them All
Hailed as one of the greatest games ever played, the 2006 Rose Bowl between the University of Texas and the University of Southern California was epitomized by Vince Young's heroic touchdown run on 4th and 5.
As he entered the end zone, a breeze of change was blowing over the college football landscape. No longer were the pocket passers like Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer, or Jason White seen as the essential piece of a championship team. What Young and Mack Brown accomplished would usher in a new era of quarterback play: the rise of the "dual threat" quarterback.
Prior to that 2006 season, developing an efficient passing quarterback took a lot of work and usually started at the Pop Warner or middle school level. Athletes were taught how to drop back, keep their shoulders even, climb the pocket, and step into a throw. Throwing on the run was seen as a last resort and usually resulted in a verbal lashing from the coaching staff. A QB was to stand behind the line of scrimmage, between the tackles, look off the safety, and throw their receiver open.
And then Vince Young happened.
Now to be fair, mobile quarterbacks had enjoyed some success on the college field before Young. Eric Crouch from Nebraska won the Heisman in 2001 running the wishbone option offense, which uses the QB as a running back like the Academies and Georgia Tech do now. Michael Vick rushed for over 1,200 yards in two seasons with the Virginia Tech Hokies, and had some early success in the NFL as a runner.
But it wasn't until Vince Young, who threw for over 3,000 yards and rushed for over 1,000 yards that season when a new blueprint was created for a QB who was just as big of a threat on the ground as he was throwing the ball.
This new phenomenon actually started in the high school ranks, where coaches tend to struggle finding a kid that can grasp the complexities of running an offense and throwing a variety of passes (deep fades, in/out routes, hook/curls, and slants all require anticipation, accuracy, and arm strength, which can be hard to develop in a 16 year old).
Necessity, they say, is the mother of all inventions.
To counter this lack of 'traditional QB' talent, teams started placing their best athletes under center and running spread option offenses. By having a player that was quick taking the snaps, defenses who already had to account for running backs and receivers were now having to focus on a quarterback that could take off and burn them with their legs.
Eventually the offenses evolved even more by adding quick screens and other gadget plays designed to get their better athletes out in open space, 1-on-1 with a defensive player. Scoreboards began lighting up and coaches like Art Briles and Chip Kelly began to implement these offenses at the collegiate level.
Even though each of those coaches' offenses were vastly different from each other, they all utilized mobile QBs who could also throw the ball. This ran counter to what a traditional QB was heralded for; a passer first, and if they could make some plays on their feet, great. But they were never known as great runners.
Now enter the likes of Tim Tebow (Florida), Colt McCoy (Texas), and Robert Griffin III (Baylor). Each enjoyed playing in a system that best highlighted their talents, and each also faced criticisms of their play by football purists.
Tim Tebow and the Power Option
Tebow might be the most known name in that list. A two-time national champion, the first sophomore Heisman winner, and most polarizing player in sports of this millennia, Tebow was a bruising runner and a smart passer, with only 16 interceptions in his entire carreer. The offense that surrounded Tebow with borderline super hero speedsters in Percy Harvin, Brandon James, and Louis Murphy who drew most defenses' attention, at least in 2007. Tebow made teams respect his running ability with runs like this:
Nothing flashy, just a pitch option turned into a power dive by a 6'3, 230lb quarterback, something that had never really been seen before. Once teams started to respect him as a runner, he would deliver dagger passes downfield right where the defender should have been, as seen here:
That small stutter-step forward was all the defense needed to think he was going to take off and run with the ball.
What Tebow and Co. were able to accomplish at the collegiate ranks redefined college offenses. SInce Tebow graduated, Florida has yet to fill the void under center with a solid QB. Now, as most of us know, Tebow's style of play and erratic passing did not translate into the NFL, but that's for later.
Colt McCoy and the Spread Option
After Young hoisted the Crystal Ball and departed for the NFL, a young Freshman named Colt McCoy stepped in under center for the Longhorns. While McCoy was not on the same level athletically as Young, as very few are, he had a better grasp of the game mentally, was a more accurate passer, and was just dangerous enough on the ground to keep a defense guessing.
A four-year starter, McCoy's career numbers helped him set 54 school and NCAA records, with over 13,000 yards passing and 112 TDs paired with over 1,500 yards rushing and 20 TDs. His 45-8 record is currently second best all-time amongst college QBs. The offense around McCoy was designed to get fast players like Jordan Shipley and Chris Ogbonnaya into space while limiting turnovers through smart, short passes.
McCoy's career had one of the more disappointing finishes, as he was injured on the first offensive drive for the Longhorns in the 2010 BCS Championship game against Alabama. The offense sputtered for the first half until true freshman Garrett Gilbert took over and brought Texas to within 3 points before Alabama eventually put the game away.
Gilbert's career, sadly, would peak in Pasadena that night, as he struggled to fill the massive shoes McCoy left at Texas. Colt did not fare much better in the NFL than Tebow. A 3rd-round pick by Cleveland, McCoy is now a back-up in Washington, has started in 25 games over 5 seasons, and has 25 TDs to 23 interceptions. His biggest concerns coming out of college were his size (6'2", 215lbs), his arm strength, and the potential inability to adapt to a pro-style offense.
If you're keeping score, that's NFL 3, QBs 0.
Robert Griffin III and the Vertical Speed Option
Speaking of Washington, the next QB on our list is 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, or RGIII for short, from Baylor University. A renowned track athlete, RGIII is seen as the driving force behind Baylor's rise from Big 12 doormat to (grab your tin foil hats and pitchforks) first College Football Playoff snub. As a freshman, he threw for over 2,000 yards and ran for another 800, while only throwing 3 interceptions to 15 TDs.
His biggest impact came on the ground, where he tallied up 13 scoring runs, the highest season total for his career. The Bears were still not quite a national power, as they finished the season 4-8. His sophomore campaign came to an abrupt end when he tore his ACL in the 3rd game of the season, which saw Blake Szymanski take the helm of the Bear offense and lead them to another 4-8 season.
Upon returning for his junior year, RGIII's athleticism was questioned after undergoing knee surgery, and many wondered if he would ever return to pre-injury form. Griffin responded by putting up some modest numbers: 3,500 passing yards with 22 TDs as well as 600 yards rushing and 8 TDs. His performance improved by his senior year where he threw for almost 4,300 yards with 37 TDs and ran for almost 700 with 10 TDs, earning him Heisman honors and a thrilling 67-56 victory over Washington in the Alamo Bowl.
As much praise as RGIII has received (and rightfully so) for the success he had at Baylor, much credit should go to the man behind the curtain in Art Briles. This is where we first saw a system that creates the player, and that system be directly accredited to NFL failure.
Briles' offense is a pass-heavy attack that relies on mismatches and possession receivers making smart reads once the ball is snapped. Before becoming a head coach, Briles was an assistant at Texas Tech where he recruited a guy named Wes Welker, a player famous for getting into open space and turning small catches into big runs.
At Baylor, Briles uses a variety of formations and screens to put the primary receiver into the best position to make the catch. I know, this sounds a lot like what the Patriots did during the playoffs on their way to the Super Bowl. The big difference: Tom Brady is the one making most of the calls and changes at the line of scrimmage, controlling the offense.
At Baylor, this is all done by the coaching staff. Quarterbacks that have come out of systems like this are always questioned about their football IQ and ability to call plays and audibles at the line. Briles' offense works in college because it takes away the thinking from the QB and minimizes the risk in the QB calling a bad play.
Other than his knee injury, this was the biggest concern surrounding RGIII coming out of college. Could he adapt his play to match the NFL? Not only would he mentally have to adapt his play before the snap, but he, like Vick and Young, would need to learn how to slide to avoid contact when they do scramble out of the pocket. SInce entering the league, RGIII has been too injured to tell if his lack of success is due to his body failing or his college system.
Briles would go on to replace Griffin with Nick Florence for a year before starting Bryce Petty, a draft candidate this yea after passing for over 6,100 yards and 61 TDs in two seasons of starts. But teams have started to be cautious of QBs coming from systems like Briles' at Baylor. While Petty did impress at the NFL Combine this February, many scouts question his ability to lead an offense on his own with a coach making calls from the sideline.
The Rise of Oregon's Blur Offense
Before Chip Kelly took over the reigns in Eugene, he was their offensive coordinator, and in 2007 had the Ducks on the verge of a BCS title and a Heisman finalist in Dennis Dixon. It looked as if Oregon would sprint into the title game, until Dixon tore his ACL against Arizona and was done for the season. But the damage had been done and the blur offense was born.
Kelly would take that blueprint and recruit speed athletes to play skill positions. His QBs were fast and mobile, and just needed to be accurate enough to find an open receiver running behind a tired and often confused defense. His offense gained media fame by featuring a series of cards and pictures to call different plays. Much like Briles at Baylor, Kelly's offense takes away a lot of the thinking from the QB and places it into the coaches' hands.
After Dixon, Kelly would have some success with the likes of Deron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli before signing one of the most debated QBs to enter the draft, based solely on talent, in Marcus Mariota. (I understand Winston is more debated because of off the field issues, but the issue with Mariota is like the rest of the QBs on this list: can he lead an NFL offense and play like an NFL QB?)
What exactly does a QB need to succeed in the NFL?
Arm strength, anticipation, high IQ, and pocket awareness are all qualities ranked at the top of most scout's lists. With the exception of Vick, who ran a blistering 4.33 40 yard dash at his college Pro Day, most QBs are not faster than their defensive counterparts at the professional level.
Vick had the innate ability to find a weakness in a defense and explode through the hole, as he was usually one of the fastest players on either side of the ball. Since then, mobile QBs like Cam Newton (4.58), Young (4.58), RGIII (4.51) and Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson (4.55) have all posted great 40 times, but are about what the average starting NFL linebacker runs (Luke Kuechly ran a 4.58 as well). Wilson sets himself apart from the rest of the QBs on this list because he is a thrower first and came from a the Wisconsin/NC State pro-style offense.
So what does all this mean? College offenses must recruit from the high school level, and high schools are quickly adapting offenses that meet their availability of quarterback talent, be that a spread option or pro-style. As the legends of the NFL like Brady and Peyton Manning retire, will we see a new breed of QBs like Newton, and RGIII take over the landscape?
A great comparison, once again based solely off of talent, sits in front of us in this year's draft. Winston, the prototypical NFL QB with the smarts, anticipation, and arm strength versus Mariota, the mobile, quick, and accurate QB.
If Mariota ends up in Philadelphia, reunited with Kelly, and Winston goes to Tampa where Dirk Koetter runs a pro-style offense (via Atlanta and Jacksonville), we would have the makings to end the debate of whether or not a mobile QB can succeed in the NFL or not.
Perhaps an even better argument would be if Mariota didn't end up with the Eagles and faced the same issues that Young, McCoy, and Tebow faced: being a mobile QB in a system designed for a pro-style QB. If history is any indicator, the odds do not favor that ending well.
The NFL is not the place to change every aspect of your play. If QBs like Mariota keep tempting teams to spend high picks on them and they don't pan out, it will be interesting to see if college coaches change their schemes back to pro-style offenses, or if they are content with producing college stars who flame out at the next level. It appears we are a few years away from truly knowing.