The Running Men
Are mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick more injury-prone than pocket passers?
By Omar Bashir and Chris Oates
This year’s Super Bowl matchup shows you don’t need a particular type of quarterback to win in the NFL. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco has 38 rushing yards this season. The 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick ran for 56 yards on a single touchdown gallop against the Packers a few weeks ago. But in the long term, when you’re building a franchise, which kind of signal-caller is the better bet?
Conventional wisdom says a runner is more likely to get hurt than a stay-in-the-pocket statue. Just ask Joe Flacco, who told the assembled press on Wednesday that “quarterbacks like [Kaepernick] are eventually going to have to become mostly pocket passers to survive in this league.”
… But is this correct—are mobile quarterbacks like Kaepernick, Michael Vick, and RGIII, more prone to getting hurt than conventional passers such as Flacco, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady?
… We tried to shed some light on the injury question by collecting quarterback injury data and applying some basic statistical tests.
Finally, we ensured that each of the four total ways of separating “mobile” passers from the rest yielded a reasonable set of names. For instance, when mobility is defined by four or more rushes per start over a regular-season career, nine of 82 players in the dataset qualify: Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Vince Young, Daunte Culpepper, David Garrard, Quincy Carter, Colt McCoy, Cam Newton, and Tim Tebow. (Kaepernick would also qualify under the four-rushes-per-start criterion.)
As you’ll see in the chart below, regardless of how we sliced the data, there was no statistically significant difference in injury rates between mobile and conventional quarterbacks. Quarterbacks of both types tend to lose 11 to 14 percent of their starts to injury. Even without counting the thus-far injury-free Kaepernick, three of the four tests produced a lower injury rate for mobile quarterbacks. The gap, though, is small enough that a statistician would call it zero.
A few things:
First: What Flacco says is literally true: “quarterbacks like [Kaepernick] are eventually going to have to become mostly pocket passers to survive in this league.”
Running backs can get stronger into their mid-20s: e.g., Adrian Peterson just had his best year at age 27. But running quarterbacks generally don’t succeed by lowering their shoulder and running over linebackers, they succeed through being elusive, like Kaepernick. Elusiveness is mostly a matter of foot speed, cutting ability, and instinct. Most players come into the NFL about as elusive as they’ll ever be. Aging and injuries, large and small, take their toll rapidly in the NFL.
Whether or not running quarterbacks suffer more major injuries doesn’t really matter. Just about everybody in football except, maybe placekickers, gets progressively dinged up, and thus their elusiveness erodes with age.
If a quarterback comes into the NFL as an outstanding runner, he might be able to be fairly effective as a starting QB immediately even if he hasn’t learned how to be an NFL-quality passer. But, if he doesn’t learn how to pass, he’s not going to be starting in his mid-30s.
Second, there’s always a lot of excitement around the idea that running quarterbacks are going to revolutionize the NFL Real Soon Now. They make for great highlight clips and they’re the simplest players to win with in football video games. My son told me that when his friends forced him to play Madden, he’d always just pick Michael Vick and have him run around with the ball.
Similarly, the easiest way to win in Pop Warner football for little boys is to snap the ball to the best athlete and let him do whatever he wants with it. One man heroics work less, however, as you ascend the pyramid of training. At the highest level (the NFL), collaboration among specialists tends to produce better results than having an all-around athlete do his own thing.
Third, here’s a baseball analogy to a young running quarterback: Say, a very fast first baseman wins Rookie of the Year at age 24 by leading the league with 15 triples (versus only five homers), stealing 60 bases, and getting to grounders in the hole between first and second base better than any other first baseman in the league. (Why is somebody that fast playing first base? Let’s say, he can’t play other infield positions because he’s lefthanded and he can’t play the outfield because he’s terrible at judging flyballs.)
If your friend says, “He’s going to revolutionize the first base position, turn it into a speed position!”
You’d reply: “He was fun as a rookie, but to have a good, long MLB career at first base, he’s going to have to develop homerun power, because he’s not going to get faster as the years go by. It’s not hard to come up with a slow first baseman who hits 25 homers year after year and thus contributes more overall than this guy does, especially in a few years when he’s hitting only six triples per year instead of 15.”
Exciting young running quarterbacks are kind of like that: they naturally get worse at running, so they’d better get better at passing.
Fourth, as a running quarterback’s running skills decline with age, defenses can concentrate more on stopping his passing, so, unless his passing improves, the effectiveness of his passing will also get worse as his rushing declines.
Fifth, all else being equal, it’s better for a quarterback to be a good runner than not a good runner, just as all else being equal, it’s good for a first baseman to be good at fielding and baserunning. But the Venn diagram intersection of NFL-Quality Passer and NFL-Quality Rusher is not large.
Sixth, all else being equal, the player who gets hit more often is going to get hurt more often. But, things are seldom equal.
Seventh, much of the confusion surrounding this topic is due to it being closely linked to questions of race, which lowers collective IQs by 20 points: “Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Vince Young, Daunte Culpepper, David Garrard, Quincy Carter, Colt McCoy, Cam Newton, and Tim Tebow. (Kaepernick would also qualify under the four-rushes-per-start criterion.)”
So, the study shows seven black running QBs, one biracial (Kaepernick), and two whites. I would imagine that pocket passers would be skewed at least as heavily in the opposite racial direction.
Much of the talk about running quarterbacks getting injured more is excuse-making and misdirection for the quarterback position in the NFL remaining white-dominated. (Notice that blacks aren’t underrepresented at quarterback in the NFL relative to their share of the national population, they just aren’t over-represented like at most other positions. In today’s mental climate, black monopolies at cornerback or running back don’t need explanation — that’s just the way it is, and, hey, why are you even noticing? — but white domination at quarterback does require rationalizations.)
What seems to be happening is that, per capita, black quarterbacks are more likely to start in the NFL before they’ve become NFL quality passers, because their, on average, more dangerous running ability makes them more effective at a young age. But, the percentage of college quarterbacks of any race who mature into elite NFL passers is quite small. So, as young black running QB starters slow down with age, they lose the skill that made them effective without being an NFL quality passer, so they tend to flame out in spectacular fashions.
So, to explain phenomenon such as why Vince Young was on the cover of Madden NFL 08 but is now a backup, the running QBs gets hurt more party line gets propounded.
In contrast, a young slow white quarterback who isn’t ready yet to be an NFL pocket passer is more likely stuck on the bench or the taxi squad. And if he fails to develop into an NFL-quality passer, he quickly moves into the rewarding world of insurance sales without much muss or fuss.