Not too long ago, the NFL would've shunned a quarterback matchup like this one. Russell Wilson vs. Colin Kaepernick, two young, dual threat quarterbacks who sometimes carry their offenses outside of the pocket? Entrusting contending teams with quarterbacks who r-r-run? In the NFL's conservative, cookie-cutter quarterback past, it would've been a radical thought.
It would've been more acceptable to call a fake punt with a 30-point lead.
Now, though, the diverse traits of Wilson and Kaepernick are essential to the Seahawks' and San Francisco 49ers' postseason hopes.
Tonight, before a national television audience, with NFC West bragging rights and maybe even NFL top-dog status at stake, you'll witness one of the great story lines of this season: The stigma of the mobile quarterback is starting to diminish significantly.
You must qualify that statement with the word "starting" because it takes a long time to eliminate preconceived notions. In fact, this has been a decades-long pursuit for athlete quarterbacks, many of whom happen to be African-American. But while many fleet-footed signal callers — from Randall Cunningham to Steve Young to Michael Vick — have had success the past 30 years, the current movement is different on two levels: There are more of this breed making an impact at once, and teams have never been more committed to building offenses around their skill sets instead of pigeonholing them into inflexible offenses.
Wilson and Kaepernick are in a crop that includes Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton. When healthy, Vick still fits in this category. And though former Washington star Jake Locker has struggled to stay healthy and find consistency in his first season as an NFL starter, he's of this genre, too. That's nearly one-fifth of the starting QBs in the league, and we're not including the more traditional guys who still rely on mobility to make plays (think Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck).
The NFL remains and might always be more desirous of the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, prototypical tall, strong-armed quarterbacks who stand in the pocket and throw all game. But the proliferation of spread offenses, combined with the sophisticated manner in which child quarterbacks are now groomed, has helped create something fresh.
Don't call them running quarterbacks anymore. Call them quarterbacks who run. No doubt, they are quarterbacks first, and their running is merely a complement. Their teams are employing everything from the read zone to the pistol formation to take advantage of their diverse talents.
"It's not that they're dropping back and scrambling and running because that's what they know to do," Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. "They're designed runs. You've got to give coaches a lot of credit for adapting. Everybody can't do this, and they're recognizing when they have something special. Only so many guys can come into this league and do it at this level."
Newton became the first rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards last season. This season, Griffin ranks second in the NFL among full-time starters in quarterback rating (104.2), and Wilson is eighth (95.5) — ridiculous efficiency for veterans, let alone players so green. Thrust into an awkward late-season promotion, the second-year Kaepernick has a 101.5 rating in his first stint as a starter. And all four of those quarterbacks rank among the top 50 in the league in rushing. They're dangerous not just because they can move. They're dangerous because they can beat you in a variety of ways.
And they're changing perceptions.
"I used to be a little bit negative about the running quarterback because I used to say, 'If he can run, he will run,'" Super Bowl-winning former NFL coach Dick Vermeil said last week in a radio interview with KJR's Mitch Levy. "Because they wouldn't allow a pattern to develop. Instead of moving and bouncing in the pocket, their first move is out of the pocket. And all of a sudden, some guy comes open downfield, and they don't go to him because they're running for a 6-yard gain. And there's still a lot of that takes place. But not as much as before."
Vermeil joked: "I tell you, there ought to be a law against them. I mean, those guys, there isn't anything they can't do."
Except for RGIII, who needs to learn to slide, health hasn't been much of a concern so far for these quarterbacks despite the designed runs. Wilson, who has a Seahawks' quarterback record 402 rushing yards this season, is especially good at avoiding big hits.
"I don't want to hurt the team," he says.
The Seahawks offense has gone from poor to solid to potent this season, and the final step in their improvement has been implementing more read-zone plays for Wilson. He always seems to make the right decision, whether it's handling off the ball to Marshawn Lynch or keeping it himself.
As Moon notes, defenses will eventually figure out how to limit these quarterbacks. But he thinks they're special enough to create a new movement in a league that has long thought too conventionally about the prototypical talent for its most important position.
"No question about it, what they're doing is significant," Moon said. "We'll see if they can adapt as time goes on. But this is progress for quarterbacks."
And as Wilson and Kaepernick have shown, this style influences winning, too.