The Washington Redskins were fading fast. They had a third-and-6 on their own 24, in the process of blowing a 19-point lead with 2:56 left in the fourth quarter. The Minnesota Vikings defense needed one more play. The Vikings brought six rushers. Brian Robison got a head start around the right side and collapsed the pocket. There was no time to find an open receiver. There was only time to step forward, find a space between linemen, and go.
Robert Griffin III went.
He sprinted up the middle, veered left. Free safety Jamarca Sanford took a bad line. Wide receiver Josh Morgan threw a timely block. And RGIII was gone: A lightning-bolt 76-yard TD run to save Washington's Week 6 bacon and a signature 13-point play in fantasy football. An absolute game-changer.
Colin Kaepernick. Cam Newton. Russell Wilson. RGIII. They all seem like game-changers, don't they? Their ability to get yards with their feet, to run the read-option, to threaten defenses in myriad ways: It just may be an NFL revolution. And with all these athletic QBs racking up fantasy points by running as well as passing, we may need to rethink the way we draft.
"Sprung Guns" can mean boffo points
The reason I usually advise you to wait on QBs when you're drafting is the fact that not all that much separates the best chuckers. It's better value to bypass the guy in the first round who'll get you 4,600 passing yards and 40 TDs, and wait until the fourth round to take the guy who'll get you 4,100 and 30. In the meantime you can grab better running backs and receivers and have a stronger overall squad.
But what if you could draft a player who can throw like an above-average QB and also threaten double-digit TDs with his legs? Now that they've been unleashed upon the NFL, Kaepernick, Newton, Wilson and Griffin have that kind of potential. Let's call them the Sprung Guns. Only two QBs posted three games of 30-plus fantasy points in 2012: Newton and RGIII. Freak athletes like this can practically win you your week by themselves.
It's also crucial to note that none of these Sprung Guns has more than two seasons of experience as a pro passer. They each have enough arm strength to make every throw, but have not yet begun racking up big weekly passing stats. As you can see in the chart below, each derived a huge percentage of his fantasy points in '12 from running, compared to the top traditional pocket passers. If and when these guys put it together as higher-volume, higher-efficiency throwers, the sky could be the fantasy football limit: The safe week-to-week rushing points they'd generate, buffered by a top QB's throwing points, would mean fantasy production from this position like we've never seen.
Pct. of Fantasy Points From Rushing
Notable 2012 QBs
NOTE: Fumbles lost aren't included in fantasy points from rushing
But can they do both? Can they generate big fantasy points running and throwing? It's a valid question to wonder whether, for example, Newton can continue to score 100-plus fantasy points per season with his legs and score 300-plus fantasy points per year with his arm. To some extent, that's really a matter of logic: If Big Cam is getting in the end zone via a running play, he's necessarily not scoring on the same drive via a passing play, and vice versa. Indeed, the history of high-rushing-TD QBs indicates that they tend not to produce high passing TD totals at the same time. On average, the 26 QBs who've run for at least six TDs in a season since the NFL schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978 have thrown for only 17.5 TDs in the same season. Even more damning: In only three of those 26 seasons has the QB thrown for more than 21 scores (and none have done so in the past 14 seasons).
Most Pass TDs, QBs with 6+ Rush TDs
Single Season Since 1978
Make no mistake: Seasons like Newton's in '11 and '12 and Griffin's in '12 are entirely fantasy-worthy. If you go out and pass for between 3,000 and 4,000 yards, run for between 700 and 800 more, and then rush for seven-plus TDs and throw for 20 more, you're in the mix to be a top-five fantasy QB every single year. But you're not reinventing the game. You're merely taking a different route to reach heights that Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Manning regularly already reach. A true "redefinition" would require more. It would require even more passing yardage, but more importantly, would require an elite number of passing TDs. Give Newton 30 passing TDs last year, and he bumps up from the No. 4 QB spot to No. 1 with 353 fantasy points, beating out Brees by 16. Give him 30 passing TDs in '11, and he would've scored 398 fantasy points, beating out Rodgers by 13.
To put a finer point on it: We need a new Steve Young.
A look at the chart above tells us that only one QB who ran for six-plus TDs in a season also was an elite TD thrower. Steve Young was the focal point of an elite offense and the TDs truly ran through him. In both '94 and '98, he was fantasy's No. 1 QB. And in each campaign he would've been worthy of a top-three overall pick in terms of Value-Based Drafting. In '98, he finished behind only Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson in fantasy value according to VBD, while in '94, he was second only to Emmitt Smith. In most years, fantasy's top QB doesn't outdistance the "baseline" QB by enough to accumulate such value. For instance, in '12, while 12 of the top 13 players in terms of raw fantasy point total were QBs, in VBD terms none of them finished among the nine most valuable players in fantasy. So Young's elite pass/run years were unique, indeed. In each of those two campaigns, he led all QBs in TD passes and TD runs.
Can our Sprung Guns become Steve Young? That's the relevant question here. In his prime years, Young not only had a cannon for a throwing arm, but he was very accurate (regularly registering a 67-plus percent completion rate) and had elite weapons (Mr. Jerry Rice comes to mind). Newton's career completion percentage is 58.9. Vick's is 56.3. Kaepernick logged in at 62.4 percent last year, but started only half the season. Wilson and RGIII were closer to Young's great standard even as rookies (64.1 and 65.6 percent, respectively), but each had only 393 attempts, which tied them for 25th in the NFL last year -- one wonders if they can keep up such high rates with more throws. Plus, suffice it to say that none of these QBs have anyone approaching Rice for a target; the best weapon on any of these teams might be Percy Harvin, a slot receiver. Who's next? Steve Smith? Pierre Garcon? Nice players. Not Hall of Famers.
Still, now at least we've quantified the Sprung Guns' allure. When we dream of a new kind of fantasy QB, we're really dreaming of one who's already come before. We're dreaming of 4,000 yards passing, 500 yards rushing, 10 rushing TDs and 30 passing TDs. (That season would translate to around 400 fantasy points, a mark that's never been reached by a QB.) We're dreaming of Steve Young.
The risk of the running QB
Of course, if it was easy to make it as a running QB, more guys would do it. It takes a crazy-great athlete, and it tempts the injury gods. One need only look at the star-crossed career of Michael Vick as a cautionary tale. Vick still holds the single-season record for rushing yards by a QB (1,039 in '06), but he's played a full 16 games exactly once in 10 pro seasons. He's been crunched in all three of his campaigns with the Philadelphia Eagles, missing multiple games with rib, leg and head injuries. He might be the greatest open-field runner in the history of the position, but defensive goliaths have always eventually made him pay.
How can we quantify this risk for the Sprung Guns? One way is to measure how frequently a QB's running style gets him hit. The chart below gives the percentage of total rushes on which these young men have been hit in their brief pro careers. It stands to reason that Newton would be most frequently hit, if only because he's a 6-foot-5, 245-pound monster and often is the one delivering the blow. On the other hand, it's heartening to see that in his half season of starting last year, Kaepernick was relatively adept at getting down or getting out.
Highest Pct. of Hits Taken on Rush Attempts
Notable QBs, 2012 Season
Of course, as RGIII knows, all it takes is one hit to ruin a season. In Week 14 against the Ravens, he got into the open field but didn't see 340-pound Haloti Ngata bearing down on him. The resulting massive blow wrenched his leg sickeningly, and it's easy to draw a straight line between that hit and the torn right ACL he suffered during the playoffs.
And then there's this: Eleven QBs have had 90-plus rushing attempts in a season and then been a full-time starter the next year. Their average follow-up season? Four games missed, 77 rushes, 527 yards and three rushing TDs. It's fair to say that a high ground-game workload takes a toll:
QBs with 90+ Rushes, Single Season
Next Season Totals
It's fine to whistle past the graveyard and promise yourself that Newton, Wilson, Kaepernick or Griffin is safe. But I'm betting that owners of Cunningham, Young and Vick were saying the same thing.
Beginning of a new era?
This fall, you'll hear TV talking heads say we've never seen anything like this new generation of running QBs. They'll say we're in a new play-calling era. They'll say the game has changed forever. But that will be hyperbole. For sure, '11 and '12 were exceptional seasons for rushing QBs, but as you can see in the chart below, they aren't the most exceptional seasons. I looked at the total number of league-wide rushing attempts by QBs, then divided by the number of teams in the league. The years 1999-2002 actually had more QB rushing attempts than '11 and '12. That was the era of early-career Vick, Daunte Culpepper, Kordell Stewart, Donovan McNabb, Doug Flutie, Rich Gannon and more. It's true that those players didn't run as much read-option as our Sprung Guns, but they did run a whole lot.
Most QB Rush Attempts Per Team
Single Season, All-Time
I bring this up by way of saying: What goes around comes around. The league adjusts. I agree with the contention that the NFL may never have had four QBs like the Sprung Guns come into the league within a year of one another, and I don't want to minimize the impact that can have on your fantasy bottom line. But I want to inject a hint of sanity into the proceedings. As league trends go, we haven't even reached the running-QB heights of a decade ago. And why did the total number of QB rushing attempts begin to diminish around 2000 and reach extreme lows in the mid-2000s? (In '07, teams averaged 40.8 QB rushes per season, the lowest mark since '91.) Yes, I think you can argue that NFL QB personnel turned over, and it "just so happened" that we had fewer running QBs starting for NFL teams. But it's also fair to say that defenses adjusted. Emphasis on massive, Bill Parcells-style linebackers waned, and teams began to find room for smaller, faster players who could get sideline-to-sideline. (Think Jon Beason, Ernie Sims, NaVorro Bowman, D'Qwell Jackson, Wesley Woodyard and the like.)
I don't think defensive coordinators can just snap their fingers to dial up a catch-all solution for the read-option. But I do think they can do a better job when it isn't a surprise. Kaepernick didn't run much read-option at all during the '12 regular season, but the San Francisco 49ers unveiled it in the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, and it was utterly devastating. (You'll recall Kaepernick set a single-game record for QB rushing yards with an impossible 181.) I'm not saying the read-option will instantly go the way of the Wildcat, but I can promise you this: Defenses will seek to punish QBs making mid-play decisions with the ball in their hands, as well as QBs who regularly run parallel to the line of scrimmage.
To draft or not to draft?
Still, it's obvious that we are in a period of expanding QB running. We have witnessed four of the five highest-attempt seasons in NFL history in the past two years. The greatest running-TD season for a QB was 14 by Newton in '11. Newton and RGIII each had an incredible 26 runs of 10-plus yards last season. If they stay healthy, all four of our Sprung Guns have the speed, moves and power to post crazy stats like this, which would mean that merely average throwing production would ensure them top-five fantasy seasons. It would also mean three or four times a year, they'd win you a fantasy game by themselves. And it would mean that if any of them are able to take a step forward toward elite throwing production, they could even eclipse the 400-point barrier, something no QB has ever done.
But clearly we can't promise they'll all stay healthy. RGIII is rehabbing his knee and may see his scrambling curtailed. Kaepernick, Wilson and Newton are easily ensconced within my favorite 10 QBs in this summer's drafts, but history shows at least one of them will probably miss time to injury. I'm heartened by a guy like Kaepernick, who avoided contact fairly well last season, albeit in only half a season. But all it takes is one hit. The more a QB runs, the riskier a pick he is. That's just a fact of life.
So the risk/reward embodied by the Sprung Guns boils down to this: The risk that they get hurt versus the reward that they become Steve Young. I look at Newton, Kaepernick, Wilson and Griffin and I don't quite see throwers who are ready to take that next step. Newton would need to bump up his completion rate by as many as 10 percentage points to make the Carolina Panthers' offense efficient enough to get to Young's 42-plus total TD level. Kaepernick would also have to increase his throwing efficiency and do it without his best wideout, Michael Crabtree, who's out with a torn Achilles. Wilson and Griffin have a year's worth of fine accuracy behind them, but need to show that their offenses are willing to unleash them as throwers. They don't necessarily need to throw a ton of passes way downfield (it's not like Young was a mad downfield bomber), but their volumes will have to increase. (In '98, Young had 12 games of 30-plus pass attempts; last year, Griffin had four and Wilson had three.)
I don't rule out the possibility that these extraordinary young athletes could make these kinds of leaps. But I'm probably not banking on it, and so I'm probably not building my draft strategy assuming it'll happen. And without a leap forward in passing stats, the Sprung Guns' upside (great running points, middling passing points) mathematically looks a lot like the veteran pocket passers' upside (meager running points, great passing points), but with an additional injury potential. That the reason I would rate all four Sprung Guns behind the game's elite pocket passers for '13. I'm excited by the possibility that we could see one of these kids put it all together and become Steve Young, but I'm not willing to pay a premium on draft day to find out. I rate Newton No. 22 overall, Kaepernick No. 37, Wilson No. 38, and RGIII No. 42. At those levels, they give you value. Any higher than that, I think the risk outweighs the reward.