My sins of fandom don’t end there: I was a late convert to the phenomenon of the running QB. Instead, I’ve always favored quarterbacks in the old-fashioned “gunslinger” mode, guys with strong arms who liked to lob balls deep downfield into double coverage.
It’s embarrassing but true: As recently as the Monday before last, I was unimpressed by rookie QB Robert Griffin III’s ability to put up rushing stats that a first-year running back wouldn’t be ashamed of (he is averaging just over 57 yards on his feet per game).
That changed when I watched a Redskins game start to finish. The RGIII highlight reel is awe-inspiring, but it gives the impression that he’s only capable of trick plays. Watching Griffin read the defense at the line, rescue seemingly dead plays with a quick scramble, and hit receivers on slant routes on down after down against the Giants two weeks ago made me retrospectively appreciate the sheer lunatic genius of this maneuver, from an October game against the Vikings:
Suddenly, Andrew Luck wasn’t the rookie I was most likely to wax lyrical about anymore. Which isn’t to deny that he’s provided plenty of material for Colts fans: Just two weeks ago, Luck spearheaded a last-second victory against the Lions, throwing for two touchdowns in the last three minutes. His final drive began on the Colts’ own 25 with just over a minute remaining, and ended with a fourth down pass that he got off as time expired; Donnie Avery caught the ball, and scampered into the end zone for the win. All very thrilling—though, for my money, the best part of that game was watching Matthew Stafford, the NFL’s bro par excellence, sit on the sidelines wearing this impassive face.
But compared to RGIII, Luck is boring. He inspires the kind of lukewarm pity that comes with having a winning season while being the victim of more personal fouls than any other player in the league. He was constantly—even last week, against Tennessee’s soft defense (31st in the league by points allowed; 27th by yards)—pressured in the pocket, throwing as he went down. A young quarterback with a strong but inaccurate arm, airing balls out again and again and again over the course of the game? I’m over that guy.
Cam Newton inspires a more unadulterated sympathy. Last year’s rookie phenomenon, his impressive stats (640 yards rushing and over 3,000 yards passing this season) are undercut by his propensity to turn the ball over (nine fumbles this season, though he’s recovered six), and the (non)existence of the Panthers’ defense. Thankfully, Newton seems to have figured out how to distract himself from on-field woes; he recently (allegedly) purchased Superman onesie pajamas.
It’s easy to credit Luck with the Colts’ miraculous resurgence (from 2-14 last season to a likely playoff berth) and Griffin with the Redskins’ sudden viability (if they miss the post-season, it will be only just). But even the casual football fan knows that the other 21 players on the field impact the outcome of each down, even if she can’t name them all. If that weren’t the case, the Saints would be headed to the playoffs, and the Texans would nearing the end of their season. Still, the QB plays the highest-profile role on the field, which means that any change in that role carries a heavy symbolic weight.
It’s also easy to talk about the end of the less mobile, scramble-only-when-necessary quarterback. But consider elderly, old-fashioned Tom Brady. He’s great at adjusting within the pocket and terrified to move outside of it; the greater Boston area holds its breath when he lumbers down the sideline. He looks like a clumsy robot when he throws. None of that stopped the Patriots from demolishing the 11-1 Texans on Monday, 42-14. Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns for an overall QB rating of 125.4.
The old quarterback model may not be dead, but a new model is undeniably ascendant, and the visibility of that position means that this shift is obvious, even to me. I still prefer the scrambling QBs of old, who looked desperate hustling downfield and slid feet-first to avoid being tackled; when RGIII eludes a tackle and rushes for a first down, my heart does not leap as dramatically as it does when I watch Tom Brady hit a receiver mid-stride with a tightly spiraling ball, 30 yards downfield. But I also can’t deny that any change, even in playing styles, is good for a league as stodgy as the NFL.
It’s not, perhaps, the change the NFL most desperately needs—that would be a better-faith attempt to address the concussion crisis, or strengthening the bargaining power of the players’ union. But if it’s not exactly heartening, it’s also not discouraging to see teams and coaches and fans embrace something new, and so publicly. At the very least, it’s a place to start.