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The Running Quarterback
by David M. Dorey
July 14, 2003
 

The list of scrambling NFL quarterbacks is long - Tarkenton, Cunningham and Young to mention but a few. The NFL has always had at least some quarterbacks that would not only tuck it and run, but do so rather successfully to the dismay of tired linebackers. But has the increase in running quarterbacks in the college ranks really fed into changing the NFL, or have they either been converted into receivers or learned to throw it away when the line breaks? Peyton Manning has been very successful in the NFL and he rarely runs. Kurt Warner - the fantasy darling one not the one last season - almost never ran either. Is it better to have a true pocket passer or can Kordell Stewart ever tease us again?

First off, let's take a look at the past four seasons for the top 18 quarterbacks each season in points per game using the most popular scoring system for quarterbacks - 1 point per 25 yards passed/10 yards rushed and three points per passing touchdown and six points for a rushing touchdown. There are many variations on quarterback scoring, but increasing passing scores and introducing negative points for interceptions merely moves the scoring curve up or down. It does very little to changing the rankings of the players relative to one another. The past four seasons stats for the best 18 fantasy quarterbacks:

1999 Gm PPG PYd PTD R# RYd RTD
1 Warner 16 21.8 4359 41 22 94 1
2 Beuerlein 16 21.4 4436 36 27 124 2
3 McNair 11 19.9 2179 12 72 337 8
4 Manning 16 18.6 4141 26 35 73 2
5 Gannon 16 18.5 3840 24 46 298 2
6 Johnson 16 17.4 4005 24 27 30 2
7 Favre 16 17.2 4101 22 28 142 0
8 George 12 17.1 2816 23 17 40 0
9 Flutie 15 17.1 3171 19 86 473 1
10 Bledsoe 16 15.9 3981 19 41 101 0
11 Blake 14 15.6 2670 16 61 334 2
12 Lucas 9 15.6 1678 14 40 149 1
13 Kitna 15 15.4 3346 23 35 57 0
14 Collins 10 15.3 2316 8 19 36 2
15 Griese 14 15.0 3032 14 46 138 2
16 Frerotte 9 14.7 2117 9 15 33 0
17 Tolliver 10 14.6 1916 7 26 142 3
18 Brunell 15 14.3 3060 14 47 208 1
2000 Gm PPG PYd PTD R# RYd RTD
1 Culpepper 16 20.9 3937 33 90 470 7
2 Garcia 16 19.9 4278 31 71 415 4
3 Warner 11 17.9 3429 21 18 17 0
4 Manning 16 17.9 4413 33 37 116 1
5 Gannon 16 17.8 3430 28 89 529 4
6 McNabb 16 17.8 3365 21 87 629 6
7 Griese 10 17.5 2688 19 28 104 1
8 Green 8 17.4 2063 16 20 69 1
9 Grbac 15 17.2 4164 28 30 111 1
10 Brunell 16 14.4 3640 20 48 236 2
11 Brooks 8 13.9 1514 9 41 170 2
12 Favre 16 13.6 3812 20 26 113 0
13 King 16 13.5 2769 18 73 353 5
14 Beuerlein 16 13.3 3730 19 44 106 1
15 Collins 16 13.3 3608 22 40 71 1
16 McNown 10 13.1 1646 8 49 326 3
17 Testaverde 16 13.1 3721 21 25 32 0
18 Blake 11 12.9 2017 13 56 247 1
2001 Gm PPG PYd PTD R# RYd RTD
1 Culpepper 11 19.6 2612 14 72 409 5
2 Warner 16 18.6 4830 36 28 60 0
3 Garcia 16 17.7 3538 32 72 263 5
4 McNair 15 17.3 3350 21 76 414 5
5 Manning 16 17.0 4131 26 35 157 4
6 McNabb 15 16.7 3233 25 79 487 2
7 Brooks 16 16.2 3832 26 80 362 1
8 Favre 16 16.1 3923 32 38 56 1
9 Gannon 16 15.9 3828 27 62 231 2
10 Stewart 16 14.9 3109 14 96 536 5
11 Fiedler 16 14.5 3292 20 73 321 4
12 Brunell 15 13.9 3309 19 39 224 1
13 Green 16 13.2 3783 17 35 158 0
14 Griese 15 13.1 2827 23 49 183 1
15 Batch 10 13.0 2392 12 12 45 0
16 Collins 16 12.8 3770 19 37 73 0
17 Plummer 16 12.8 3653 18 35 164 0
18 Weinke 15 12.5 2931 11 37 128 6
2002 Gm PPG PYd PTD R# RYd RTD
1 McNabb 10 22.2 2289 17 62 464 6
2 Culpepper 16 19.6 3859 18 105 603 10
3 Vick 15 18.9 2936 16 112 796 8
4 Gannon 16 18.2 4689 26 50 156 3
5 Manning 16 16.8 4199 27 38 148 2
6 Bledsoe 16 16.1 4359 24 27 67 2
7 Brooks 16 15.9 3574 27 61 256 2
8 McNair 16 15.6 3387 22 82 440 3
9 Brady 16 15.3 3764 28 42 110 1
10 Garcia 16 15.3 3344 21 72 358 3
11 Kitna 13 15.0 3178 16 25 52 4
12 Green 16 14.9 3690 26 31 225 1
13 Johnson 13 14.5 3049 22 13 30 0
14 Hasselbeck 13 14.2 3075 15 40 202 1
15 Favre 16 13.9 3658 27 25 73 0
16 Griese 13 13.7 3214 15 38 107 1
17 Collins 16 13.6 4076 19 43 -3 0
18 Maddox 13 13.5 2836 20 18 49 0

1999 was a pretty good year for quarterback scoring overall, but last season was a little better than the three prior years. Right now it mostly looks like a bunch of stats with Warner and Culpepper the best bets these past four seasons. Let's start to deconstruct these stats further and see what they say. We'll look closer at the top 12 quarterbacks as that is the most common league size and break them down into groups of four.
Top QBs in tiers of four
Top 4 PPG % Run R# RY YPC RTD
1999 20.4 15% 39 157 4.0 3.3
2000 19.2 13% 54 255 4.7 3.0
2001 18.3 19% 62 287 4.6 3.8
2002 19.7 32% 82 505 6.1 6.8
Next 4 PPG % Run R# RY YPC RTD
1999 17.6 7% 30 128 4.3 1.0
2000 17.6 19% 56 333 5.9 3.0
2001 16.5 14% 58 266 4.6 2.0
2002 16.1 14% 52 228 4.4 2.2
Last 4 PPG % Run R# RY YPC RTD
1999 16.0 16% 57 264 4.3 1.0
2000 14.8 13% 36 158 4.3 1.3
2001 14.8 21% 68 328 4.9 3.0
2002 15.1 13% 43 186 4.2 2.3
Overall PPG % Run R# RY YPC RTD
1999 18.0 13% 42 183 4.2 1.8
2000 17.2 15% 49 248 4.9 2.4
2001 16.5 18% 63 293 4.7 2.9
2002 17.0 20% 59 306 4.9 3.8

What we see in the second and third tier of four players is not significant nor really consistent. The "Next 4" and the "Final 4" carry similar numbers from season to season and these round out the twelve best quarterbacks in fantasy leagues the past four years.

Where the difference comes is at the top four quarterbacks. And this is critical since they represent the difference makers, the ones that score those extra points over the average players that can spell victory for a fantasy team.

While points per game has not changed much, the manner in how they were obtained is on a definite trend upwards for rushing. The number of carries, yards and yards per carry have all been increasing for quarterback rushing. Since we are dealing with the best four quarterbacks out of thirty two starters, we are talking more about individual players than we are position wide effects. Let's look at those individuals again, only with a bit different detail.

I've highlighted specific quarterbacks in either red (rarely rush) or green (big rushers) to illustrate my conclusion. In the past four years, Peyton Manning has been an obvious stud as was Kurt Warner (at least until last season). They are prototypical pocket passers who are more likely to throw the ball away than to take off running. They are joined by Brett Favre who no longer reaches the top four, but who always turns in at least decent seasons. Last year Favre was 15th in points per game as an aberration, but that was nothing compared to where Warner swan dived.

Top 12 Quarterbacks 1999-2002, Percentage of Points Per Game attributed to Run
1999 PPG % Run
Warner 21.8 5%
Beuerlein 21.4 8%
McNair 19.9 40%
Manning 18.6 7%
subtotal 20.4 15%
Gannon 18.5 16%
Johnson 17.4 6%
Favre 17.2 6%
George 17.1 2%
subtotal 17.6 7%
Flutie 17.1 22%
Bledsoe 15.9 4%
Blake 15.6 23%
Lucas 15.6 16%
2000 PPG % Run
Culpepper 20.9 26%
Garcia 19.9 20%
Warner 17.9 1%
Manning 17.9 6%
subtotal 19.2 13%
Gannon 17.8 26%
McNabb 17.8 33%
Griese 17.5 9%
Green 17.4 9%
subtotal 17.6 19%
Grbac 17.2 6%
Brunell 14.4 15%
Brooks 13.9 25%
Favre 13.6 5%
2001 PPG % Run
Culpepper 19.6 33%
Warner 18.6 2%
Garcia 17.7 19%
McNair 17.3 27%
subtotal 18.3 19%
Manning 17 14%
McNabb 16.7 23%
Brooks 16.2 15%
Favre 16.1 4%
subtotal 16.5 14%
Gannon 15.9 13%
Stewart 14.9 33%
Fiedler 14.5 23%
Brunell 13.9 13%
2002 PPG % Run
McNabb 22.2 37%
Culpepper 19.6 37%
Vick 18.9 44%
Gannon 18.2 11%
subtotal 19.7 32%
Manning 16.8 10%
Bledsoe 16.1 7%
Brooks 15.9 14%
McNair 15.6 24%
subtotal 16.1 14%
Brady 15.3 7%
Garcia 15.3 21%
Kitna 15 14%
Green 14.9 11%

The point is that these three passers show up each season and only Warner has missed any games in the past four years (five in 2000 and some would say all of them last year). Only Warner has managed to be better than third highest in points per game and the jury is still out on his recovery from the thumb injury.

The "green" rushers of Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Jeff Garcia, and Aaron Brooks have increased their share of the top four each season until last year they owned the best four along with new comer Michael Vick. Rich Gannon may be slowing down - his percentage of run points to overall fantasy points supports that. Michael Vick appears ready to take the torch. What is more interesting is that those players who made it big one season without using the run are not returning to the same level the next year. Nor even any of the past four years outside their one big year. The "runners" are not taking over the entire league, only the top fantasy spots. The handful of spots that spell the difference between your fantasy playoffs and mediocrity.

Another factor to consider is that pocket passing quarterbacks that reach the top four or even top eight are more likely to have stretches of good games. They will have - like Brady and Bledsoe - big first halves of the season or like Kitna or Green bigger second halves. But they are less likely to offer a full season of consistently high output. Running quarterbacks offer a more consistent output game to game, netting you points either by the pass or the run or both.

The NFL goes through phases where certain components of the game are more commonly used and eventually figured out by the defense. This, however, is less likely to affect the runners we've mentions. Quarterbacks who do not run are relying on their linemen to block and their receivers to get open and catch the ball. Key injuries on the line or to the receivers can wipe out the rhythm and chemistry that worked well. A great passer can be neutralized with just one or two great players in a secondary. Less so to a running quarterback who can beat an opponent more than one way. Even if the line is not always great and the receivers would struggle to start on any other team and even the runningbacks are not that good, the running quarterback can still gain fantasy points.

Just ask Donovan McNabb.

Bootleg on two... you ready?