Running QBs are all the rage in the NFL, but it comes with a price
There was a time when coaches winced when they saw their quarterback run with the ball in the open field, but today it is almost commonplace
On Sunday, starting at quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, he suffered the dreaded Lisfranc injury, this time to his left foot (he suffered the same injury to his right foot in the season opener against Nebraska in 2015). He also missed two games earlier this season with a concussion, and he sustained plantar fascia and mallet finger injuries, as well. He missed last year’s playoff game against the Buccaneers because of a knee injury he sustained almost exactly a year ago.
For BYU fans, this is a familiar story. Hill suffered a remarkable number of injuries as a collegiate player — four season-ending injuries to be precise — and missed 28 games, which must be some sort of record. Somehow he managed to play four seasons in the NFL without injury until 2021, when problems began again.
There’s a pattern to his injuries. In 2012, he was injured on a running play against Utah State. In 2014, he fractured his left leg on a run against Utah State. In 2015, he suffered the first Lisfranc injury while running for a touchdown against Nebraska. In 2016, Hill hyperextended his left elbow on a running play against Utah State. On Sunday, Hill was injured on a short run against the Atlanta Falcons.
In other words, every season-ending injury occurred on a running play.
Which brings us to a broader point. NFL coaches once believed that it was prudent to keep quarterbacks in the pocket, looking for open receivers. They winced every time they ran with the ball into the open field for fear of injury. Almost no one thinks like that anymore — but maybe they should.
Running quarterbacks are all the rage in the NFL. For decades, the only time a quarterback ran with the ball was when the pass rush forced him. Now they’re used as an extra running back on designed running plays.
There are many of them. Kyler Murray. Josh Allen. Justin Fields. Lamar Jackson, who has 615 rushing attempts in four seasons, topping 1,000 yards in two of them. Tyler Huntley. Jalen Hurts, a poor passer, rushed for 784 yards this season. Cam Newton has 1,118 career rushing attempts. Before his off-field troubles, Deshaun Watson ran the ball 99 times in 2018 and 40% of them were by design, according to Pro Football Focus. And of course there’s Hill, who, like Jackson and Hurts, is a much more effective runner than passer.
All of the above quarterbacks have been very good at running the ball for big yards and touchdowns.
And yet the old fears have been realized — many of them have missed playing time with injuries this season. Hurts was hurt, missing a game. Jackson has missed playing time with injuries. Fields missed games with cracked ribs. The second half of Newton’s career has been compromised by injuries and his performances have nosedived. Murray has missed playing time with an injury. Teddy Bridgewater, who is largely a passer and runs sparingly, sustained a concussion on a run. Jameis Winston and Bridgewater are both pass-first quarterbacks, but both were injured on a running play this season. Then there’s Hill.
And look who’s left standing? Tom Brady, a human statue; Aaron Rodgers, a capable and agile runner who passes first and rarely runs. Mac Jones. Joe Burrow. Ryan Tannehill. Josh Allen, another capable runner who passes first. Matt Stafford. Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan. Dak Prescott, who suffered a brutal season-ending injury early last season, doesn’t run as much as he did early in his career and he has remained healthy this season.
The old-style, three-read quarterbacks who stay in the pocket are still upright.
Allen is an exception. Allen has had more than 100 rushing attempts three consecutive seasons but has been injury-proof so far. Justin Herbert is also an excellent runner but he runs infrequently and he has avoided injury.
Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Troy Aikman also were immobile pass-first quarterbacks but were rarely sidelined by injuries. The careers of Robert Griffin III and Michael Vick — like Newton’s — were running quarterbacks whose careers were compromised by injuries. So was the once-promising career of Colin Kaepernick, a poor passer who did much to start the read-option craze in the league but ultimately was broken down by injuries that caught up with him in his fourth year as a starter (three surgeries following the 2015 season).
There’s a revolution underway in the NFL in which quarterbacks are being utilized more frequently as runners, but is it worth the payoff? Not many “running quarterbacks” have won Super Bowls. The closest fits are Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes and both of them come with the caveat that they won with their arms not with their legs.
There’s a reason that quarterbacks are told to slide before a tackler reaches them, and it’s the same reason they have been told for decades to stay in the pocket and throw the ball. It’s safer and ultimately perhaps more productive in the long run (so to speak).