Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Running Quarterbacks Win Super Bowls
With the 2013 NFL preseason underway, and the regular season fast approaching, you'll start seeing Super Bowl predictions awfully soon. Occasionally, you'll still come across the assertion that a running quarterback has never won a Super Bowl. If you consider the matter at all, it becomes obvious that this is false, but the idea's still out there, so let's put it to rest.
Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Steve Young, John Elway, and Aaron Rodgers have won a combined 10 Super Bowls. There. We can go home now, right?
"But wait!" I hear some of you cry. "Those weren't really running QBs! Look at modern QBs like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III! No one with that style has ever won a Super Bowl!"
Oh, okay. You're right. Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III have never won a Super Bowl. They have played a combined three seasons. Michael Vick's had five healthy seasons, and he's never won a championship, either. But if that's what you mean by a running QB, you're talking about a handful of players over the last 47 years, most of whom probably have their best years in front of them.
What constitutes a running quarterback? If all we mean is guys who have rushed for 600 yards in a season, there are nine such players in NFL history. Three of those nine — Newton, Griffin, and Tim Tebow — have just started their careers, and might well win in the future. That leaves Vick, Bobby Douglass, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, and Daunte Culpepper. That's six players. If that's what you mean by a running quarterback, you're not really talking about a category or style, you're just talking about six players. Furthermore, two of them (Cunningham and McNabb) are borderline Hall of Famers, and five of the six led teams to a conference championship game, McNabb five times.
If we use a more realistic definition of running QB, something that's actually meaningful and includes more than a handful of players, we find that some of the greatest runners ever to play quarterback won championships.
Roger Staubach was called Roger the Dodger because of his scrambling ability. In 1971, he rushed for 343 yards — 2nd-most of any QB — with an 8.2 average and 2 touchdowns. He outrushed Bobby Douglass that year, and the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. Staubach ranked among the top 10 rushing QBs every full season of his career, and won two NFL titles.
Terry Bradshaw rushed for over 200 yards in six of his first seven seasons, a span that included two Super Bowl victories. In 1972, when the Steelers made the playoffs for the first time in team history, Bradshaw ran for a career-high 346 yards and 7 TDs, with a 6.0 average. When they won their first Super Bowl in '74, Bradshaw rushed for 224 yards in only 8 games, and out-rushed the entire Vikings team in Super Bowl IX (33-17). In 1975, Bradshaw was the 3rd-leading rusher among QBs, out-gained only by Bert Jones of the AFC East champion Colts, and by Staubach, whose Cowboys he met in Super Bowl X.
Steve Young was one of the most gifted runners ever to play quarterback in the NFL. He finished among the top three QBs in rushing yardage eight times, more than any other quarterback in history. He also led the NFL in passer rating six times, more than any other quarterback in history. His 43 rushing TDs are the most by any QB in the Super Bowl era, and his 96.8 passer rating is 2nd best all-time (Aaron Rodgers).
Sometimes fans try to whitewash Young's brilliance as a runner. In 1994, when Young was named NFL MVP and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl win, he broke the single-season record for passer rating, but he also led all QBs in rushing yardage and scored seven TDs on the ground. When Young was named MVP of Super Bowl XXIX, he set a Super Bowl record that may never be broken, with six passing TDs, but he also led all rushers — including Ricky Watters and Natrone Means — in yards, averaging nearly 10 per attempt.
Other than his final season, he rushed for over 100 yards every year of his career, even when he was injured or a backup. He topped 400 yards five times and scored at least 4 rushing TDs six times. If you ever hear anyone say a running QB has never won a Super Bowl, say the name "Steve Young" and if they don't concede the argument, you can be certain they don't know what they're talking about. Not only was he one of the three or four greatest running QBs of the 20th century, in his Super Bowl-winning season he led all quarterbacks in rushing yards and rushing TDs, and he led all rushers in the Super Bowl.
John Elway ranked among the top 10 QBs in rushing yards 14 times — a record — and rushed for over 200 yards in a season 11 times, another record. That includes four of the five seasons in which Elway's Broncos reached the Super Bowl. Elway started five Super Bowls and won two, but his most famous play in those five games wasn't a pass, it was a scramble: The Helicopter in Super Bowl XXXI.
Aaron Rodgers doesn't seem like a running QB compared to last year's breakout stars, like RG3 and Colin Kaepernick. But he was the 2nd-leading rusher among QBs in 2009, 3rd-leading in 2010, and 4th in 2011. The Packers made the playoffs all three seasons, including a Super Bowl win in the '10 season. That year, Rodgers rushed for at least 20 yards 11 times in the regular season, plus the NFC Championship win over the Bears.
You could also argue for Joe Theisman, Joe Montana, Jim McMahon, and Brett Favre to be included among running QBs who won Super Bowls, but even without them, there are half a dozen who did. Of the 30 starting QBs who have won Super Bowls, about 20% of the them were among the best rushers at their position. That doesn't even include great runners who won championships before the Super Bowl, like Otto Graham and Bobby Layne.
The standard assertion is that a running QB has never won a Super Bowl, which great scramblers like Staubach and Young clearly disprove. Any argument that doesn't count those guys as "running QBs" is pointless. If you're only talking about Bobby Douglass, Randall Cunningham, and Michael Vick, then yes, none of those three won a Super Bowl. Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick have their whole careers ahead of them, and it's crazy to blame them for not winning as rookies.
And you don't need to go back even as far as Steve Young, a modern player, to find a running QB win a Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl in February of 2011. Among QBs, the leading rushers that season were Michael Vick, Josh Freeman, and Aaron Rodgers. Earlier this year, the 49ers came up short in the Super Bowl, but Kaepernick's running devastated the Green Bay defense in the playoffs. Three of the top four rushing QBs, and six of the top 10, led their teams to the playoffs, so it's hard to cite running skill as a barrier to success. In fact, let that word "skill" serve as an indicator of something that helps teams win, not the other way around.
For anyone who stubbornly clings to the idea that running QBs don't win, the one remaining argument — even weaker than the others — is that a "running QB" is one who runs well but isn't a good passer. That excludes players like Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers — but it excludes everyone else, too. Who's left? Bobby Douglass, okay. Maybe Kordell Stewart. And Tim Tebow. That's it. Guys who can't throw don't win Super Bowls because they don't play quarterback in the NFL.
I'll leave you with two lists of accomplished running QBs. Super Bowl winners are marked with an (*) asterisk.
Most rushing yards by a quarterback, career
Super Bowl Era (1966-present)
1. Michael Vick, 5551
2. Randall Cunningham, 4928
3. Steve Young, 4239*
4. Steve McNair, 3590
5. Donovan McNabb, 3459
6. John Elway, 3407*
7. Kordell Stewart, 2874
8. Jim Harbaugh, 2787
9. Greg Landry, 2655
10. Bobby Douglass, 2654
Also in the top 20: Staubach (2264) and Bradshaw (2257)
Most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, career
Super Bowl Era (1966-present)
1. Steve Young, 43*
2. Kordell Stewart, 38
3. Steve McNair, 37
t4. Randall Cunningham, 35
t4. Steve Grogan, 35
t6. Daunte Culpepper, 34
t6. Michael Vick, 34
8. John Elway, 33*
9. Terry Bradshaw, 32*
10. Donovan McNabb, 29
Also in the top 20: Montana and Staubach, 20 each
Staubach had a short career, about 9½ seasons, and played a 14-game schedule. Give him 16 games and a career that began when he was 23, he'd be top-10 on both lists. Aaron Rodgers already has 1442 yards and 18 TDs, after only five seasons as starter. The new wave of running QBs may catch him before he reaches the top 10 in yardage, but I bet he'll make the top 10 in TDs before his career is up. Of course, by that time, Griffin and Kaepernick and Newton and Wilson probably will have won a ring or two of their own.