The democratization of the highest-profile position in American sports happened slowly, in varied ways subtle enough to miss, but the end-stage results have been resoundingly clear during the NFL season’s first two weeks.
It can be debated how this year’s starting quarterbacks rate in quality compared with those of previous eras. Almost certainly, there has never been a more interesting, more diverse crop. In Week 2, they ranged in age from Tom Brady’s 43 years to Justin Herbert’s 22. They ranged in height from 6-foot-6 to 5-10, with seven starters 6-5 or taller and five 6-1 or shorter. Nine were Black, the second-highest total ever behind Week 1’s 10. They included the sheer force of Cam Newton and Josh Allen, the improvisational grace of Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson and the genius of Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. The NFL today allows for more ways to play quarterback than ever before.
The present variety within NFL quarterbacking, driven by a broadening of who is chosen to play the position and strategic offensive advances, may only be the transition phase from one prototype to another. There may not be a model 2020 NFL quarterback, but one seems to be emerging: athletic, accurate and a constant threat to run. The quarterbacks most bound to the pocket — Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan — are in their 40s or late 30s. There is a chance the traditional pocket passer will become a relic, the style no longer preferred or even feasible.
The last two NFL MVPs are Mahomes and Jackson, who face off Monday night in a highly anticipated matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens, and this year’s early leading contender is Wilson. Those three play vastly different styles, but they all force defenses to account for them as runners. The New England Patriots, typically a bellwether of where football is headed, turned to Newton after losing Brady in free agency.
“Mobility in the pocket, ability to extend plays, the things that you saw both quarterbacks do in our game [against the Houston Texans on Sunday] is just a huge part of the NFL right now,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s a big factor as a defense to think about and to consider how you’re going to try to defend it.”
The advantages to employing a dual-threat quarterback under recent rule changes and strategic advances are too powerful to ignore. Another factor driving the surge in dual-threat quarterbacks is the difficulty in quickly developing any other kind.
Teams are incentivized to play quarterbacks immediately because a quarterback on a rookie contract enables front offices to spend their salary caps on improving the rest of the roster. At the same time, rules in the most recent collective bargaining agreement decreased offseason work. Improvisation can be a shortcut when expertise is unattainable.
“The days of mastering the position with an extended offseason like Tom Brady or Drew Brees, that’s hard to do nowadays,” Arizona Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “You don’t have these kids very long to work with [them], if you have them at all, for an offseason.”
As a baseline for determining whether quarterbacks can excel, Kingsbury requires an affirmative answer to the question, “Can they get you out of a bad play?” That means a quarterback needs not supersonic speed but enough quickness and mobility to gain chunks of yardage when pressured or to escape the pocket to buy time to find an open receiver. He needs to be able to turn broken plays into winning plays.
“The D-lines in this league are just ridiculous,” Kingsbury said. “You can’t expect to block them and hold up consistently. So if you’re not a Brees or a Brady, getting the ball out on time to the right place 100 percent of the time, you better have some athleticism to be able to extend plays.”
“I do think there’s a shift, for a lot of reasons,” said Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley, who in the past three years has sent two quarterbacks to the NFL as first overall picks. “First college, and then the NFL, has started to figure out if you do have a guy that can move around some, it opens up so much more. There’s so much more schematically you can do. You got a guy that can get you out of bad situations.”
Riley has seen a recent evolution in quarterback play. Quarterbacks of previous generations typically grew up playing as either a running quarterback or a passing quarterback. Dominant offenses at lower levels, which have trickled up to the NFL, are reliant on quarterbacks who can run and pass.
“To me, some of the earlier guys in the NFL that were considered more athletic, they weren’t quite as good from the pocket as some of the pocket guys,” Riley said. “I think what you’re finding now is you’re seeing guys that are really, really good from the pocket that also happen to be very athletic. That’s, to me, what you’re looking for. When you got a guy that, if people are going to try to keep you in the pocket, that can pick you apart and win from there and then can escape, can get outside the pocket, who can do some designed things in the run game or bootleg game.
“Now, there’s not a ton of those guys that exist,” Riley continued. “When you find that, it’s the toughest thing in this game to defend. I think you’ll continue to see skill sets like that both at our level and at the next level.”
The NFL now has access to more of those skill sets because football, at all levels, has broadened the pool of possible candidates, particularly along the lines of race and height.
Joshua Pitts, a sports economics professor at Kennesaw State, once conducted a study on “positional segregation” that showed the subgroup most likely to change position from high school to college was Black quarterbacks. The data is now more than 10 years old and has not been updated, but anecdotally things have improved: The NFL has never employed more Black starting quarterbacks, a group that includes three former league MVPs (Jackson, Mahomes, Newton), this year’s front-runner (Wilson) and several rising stars (Murray, Watson and Dak Prescott).
Convention regarding size has changed, too. Once a prerequisite, height is now overlooked in favor of other attributes. At 5-10, Murray was the shortest quarterback drafted, in any round, since at least 2000, and his selection first overall came the year after 6-1 Baker Mayfield went No. 1. By previously overlooking smaller quarterbacks, the NFL cut its possible talent pool significantly.
“The thing I like about what’s happening is that there’s a broader evaluation now,” said David Morris, who owns the quarterback coaching company QB Country and works with several NFL players, including the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones. “They’re not going to say, ‘Yeah, he’s 6 feet, he can never play quarterback in the league.’ There’s attributes that are starting to be differentiators — athleticism, twitch, foot speed. When you study it, when you look at it, Lamar Jackson is a great passer. So is Kyler Murray. They can kill you with their feet, but they’re great passers. I just like it because quarterbacks aren’t getting put in such a box from an evaluation standpoint.”
Coaches have also welcomed a more varied group of quarterbacks by accommodating them. College plays have filtered into the NFL. Coaches have simplified playbooks and verbiage, relying on motion and play-action more often — simple concepts for an offense that are difficult for a defense to decipher. NFL teams once attempted to find quarterbacks who could perform an incredibly difficult job. They have now made the incredibly difficult job a little less difficult.
“Football has gotten a little easier on the quarterback,” Morris said. “I’m not saying it’s easy to play quarterback. It’s not. It’s very hard. I do think offenses are built to make decisions easier, to create more space. The [run-pass option] and what it does. … The game has slowed down a hair for the quarterback in general. Just a hair.”
Morris pointed out how dual-threat quarterbacks operating fast-paced offenses had given Alabama Coach Nick Saban fits until Saban decided to employ the same approach in his own offenses. Now Saban’s good friend and Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is getting his first chance to try the same, with Newton taking over for the statuesque Brady.
“There’s a reason Cam is now Belichick’s QB,” Morris said. “Kind of says it all.”