Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Not Just Michael Vick
Bobby Douglass rushed for 968 yards in 1972. Randall Cunningham rushed for 942 yards in 1990. Donovan McNabb, Rich Gannon, Daunte Culpepper, Kordell Stewart, Jeff Garcia, and Steve McNair all rushed for over 400 yards in 2000. Michael Vick was a rookie in 2001.
Because it's the slowest part of the offseason, and because Vick is a celebrity, NFL.com made it a major story last week when Vick told ESPN.com that he created the new generation of running quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. "I was the guy who started it all. I revolutionized the game. I changed the way it was played in the NFL."
Running quarterbacks have always existed. Until about 1950, quarterback was largely a runner's position, and QBs were really triple-threat tailbacks who could run, throw, or kick. Otto Graham rushed for more touchdowns (44), in a 10-year, 126-game career, than Vick (36) has in 13 seasons and 128 games. Douglass rushed for 968 yards in a 14-game season. Fran Tarkenton rushed for 300 yards seven times, all in 14-game seasons. Sports Illustrated declared, with rather more authority than Vick, that Cunningham revolutionized the game, naming him "The Quarterback for the '90s."
Today's NFL features what feels like an unprecedented wealth of talented young running quarterbacks: Cam Newton, RG3, Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, maybe a few more depending on where you draw the line for running (Andrew Luck), young (Alex Smith), or talented (Geno Smith, Terrelle Pryor). While Vick surely inspired some of those players — NFL.com's Kevin Patra notes that Vick "was the quarterback you picked in Madden" — I would argue that Newton was the one who opened the door for RG3 and company.
In 2011, Newton passed for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, while rushing for 706 yards and another 14 TDs. It was like a light came on for NFL coaches and GMs. College quarterbacks have been running forever, but everyone knew that you couldn't run the option in the NFL. But with more and more schools adopting pro-style offenses, NCAA teams were succeeding with exceptional athletes playing the quarterback position, dual-threat players who could attack defenses with both their arms and their legs. With Newton as an example, numerous teams decided they could use running QBs, as long as those QBs could also pass effectively. Even Tim Tebow may have influenced the trend, since he led the Broncos to a playoff win that season, passing for 316 yards against the Steelers in addition to his running.
Michael Vick was drafted first overall in 2001, but he believes it took a decade for his "revolution" to begin. In the meantime, successful NCAA running QBs like Brad Smith and Matt Jones were moved to other positions, while 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch never played a down in the NFL. Vick's assertion that "I was the guy who started it all" also ignores a handful of unsuccessful mobile quarterbacks between himself and Newton, players like Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, and Pat White. How come Vick's revolution didn't start until after Newton's rookie season?
Even if we wanted to trace today's mobile QBs to the early 2000s, what about players like Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair? How can Michael Vick claim, with a straight face, that he "was the guy who started it all?" He comes into a league that already features those two — plus Jeff Blake, Daunte Culpepper, Doug Flutie, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, and Kordell Stewart — and thinks he "revolutionized the game," ignoring the men who opened the door for him. We've known for years now that Michael Vick doesn't perceive reality the way the rest of us do, but this was off the tracks even for him.
I don't doubt that Griffin and Kaepernick played as Vick in Madden when they were growing up, but let's not pretend they became running quarterbacks just because of Mike. Running the option and scrambling played to their strengths. Fast guys with good arms usually play quarterback ... until they get to the NFL. And if that's changed in the last two or three years, it's not because of a 34-year-old who made his NFL debut 13 years ago — it's because Cam Newton and his former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski proved that mobile QBs, and even the option, can succeed in today's NFL. I'd probably throw some credit toward Kyle Shanahan and Griffin, as well, for their work early in the 2012 season.
Michael Vick is the best pure running quarterback ever, but he didn't revolutionize the game of football, or change the way it is played. For a player with a unique distinction in history, Vick showed an awfully poor grasp of that history.