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Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III carrying mobile QB trend to NFL?

Associated Press/US Presswire
Cam Newton, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III (from left to right) can all do major damage with their legs.


 

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Nev. -- Urban Meyer remembers the naysayers. The competitors always do, particularly those who dedicate their professional lives to finding success, regardless of the circumstances.

The offensive guru recalls hearing the same refrain at Florida as he heard at Utah, and Bowling Green before that. By now, with Meyer serving as the head coach of Ohio State, those contrarians at the college level know better than to second-guess.

Those in the NFL haven't learned yet.

Meyer swept through various levels of college football, using mobile quarterbacks to reach new heights. Undefeated seasons and national titles followed, silencing the critics. The spread offense he helped popularize is already prevalent in professional football -- this trend of the last decade now permeates every playbook. But what about the use of mobile quarterbacks who really make that offense go?

Is the NFL ready for its next trend?

"I heard it all: 'It's not going to work in the Mountain West Conference, it's not going to work in the SEC, it's not going to work in the NFL,' " Meyer said recently during a practice round for the American Heritage Golf Championship. "It's all dependent on who the player is. If it's a guy that can take a hit (it will be OK). The NFL's bigger, faster, stronger, more violent, so that's real. But I think there are certain guys who can get away with it (in the NFL)."

Ask college coaches like Meyer and South Florida's Skip Holtz. Ask analysts and former college stars like Doug Flutie. When pressed to pinpoint the next innovation the NFL will swipe from college, everyone says it's the use of mobile passers.

Ask Meyer what's next on Sundays and he provides a succinct answer:

"I think utilizing the quarterbacks as something more than just handing the ball off and throwing it."

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In fact, it's already happening. In his rookie season for the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton rushed for 706 yards an 14 touchdowns (a record for NFL quarterbacks). And of course, Tim Tebow piled up 660 yards on the ground, helping the Denver Broncos lead the league in rushing. The old standby for athletic quarterbacks, Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles, had 589 yards on 76 attempts (7.8 yards a pop). Even Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, a more traditional passer, contributed 257 rushing yards (4.3 yards per carry).

The important part isn't the total yards, though. It's that they are passers who also force defenses to defend them on the ground. It's that they are traditional quarterbacks, plus a little bit more.

Newton and Tebow thrived in college -- both winning BCS titles -- in spread attacks that took advantage of their multiple skills. This year's rookie class features Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III, who not only threw for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns in his Heisman Trophy-winning season at Baylor, but also rushed for 699 yards and 10 more scores when the pocket broke down.

And there are more dual threats on the way. For instance, highly regarded Virginia Tech signal caller Logan Thomas had more than 10 rushes in nine games last season.

Injuries are always a concern, but it seems college coaches are loosening the reins on their quarterbacks.

Will NFL coaches be next?

"I think you're seeing more and more of it," Holtz said. "People always said the athletic quarterback would never make it in that league. But you look over the last five years and I think the thing you're seeing more and more is the versatility that the athletic quarterback is bringing to the NFL. Now, you don't want just a guy that all he can do is run. But you want a guy that has the ability to drop back in the pocket, and when things break down in the pocket, make things happen. Some of these young quarterbacks that have had great success in college with their athleticism, you're starting to see even more of that carry over into the NFL."

NFL trends have long morphed from the college game. The spread offense. The Wildcat. The use of tight ends as receivers. In turn, the exploration of the nickel look as an essential, base defense. The fear for this particular development -- the mobile quarterback -- has always been injury. But as Flutie points out, a running QB is a weapon worth using.

"I think they're realizing with Tebow that there's an aspect of the quarterback running that they like," Flutie said. "You obviously don't want him to get beat up, but if you spread it out and you're running the ball in an advantageous situation, the yards can come easy and you don't have to beat up your quarterback. Just do it four or five times a game, not like 15 or 20. I think that's the aspect that they're moving to right now."

That's what Meyer sees happening. His quarterbacks have thrived similarly, from Josh Harris at Bowling Green to Alex Smith at Utah to Tebow at Florida. All three were mobile, athletic quarterbacks who attacked defenses on designed runs and in space, withstood the physical toll and won. Defenses are forced to commit an extra defender to watch this type of signal caller. This weakens the unit, providing the offense with the capability to call anything.

From the grassroots level, up from the high school ranks, quarterbacks who can move have flooded the college game.

"That's just more of what you're having to pick from," said Smith, who rushed for 631 yards in his final season under Meyer at Utah and who helped secure an NFC title game berth for the San Francisco 49ers with an electric, 28-yard touchdown run last January. "In college, you're seeing more and more of it. Putting an athletic guy back there who can run and throw it, that's kind of the product you're getting. It's less guys that come from pro-style systems."

There are reasons why it helps to have an athlete in the pocket at the NFL level, too. The players playing the game have changed. A 6-foot-5 statuesque pocket passer needs a Peyton Manning-like quick release now to avoid getting crunched every play. Yes, things have changed since 6-4, 231-pound Mark Rypien led the Redskins to a Super Bowl win.

"Your defensive linemen are faster than most quarterbacks," Rypien said of today's game. "It's an athletic and strong and physical game. Everyone adheres to that, and they understand the importance of that position. Even a guy like (Steelers quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger, one of the bigger guys in the league, he has great escape-ability and can move within the pocket. That's the thing they're looking for now and that's the thing they're drafting."

Even Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, considered a pocket passer, averaged 8.2 yards per rush at Stanford in 2010 and ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. What teams covet at that position has been altered over time.

"Everybody in the NFL said you'll never see that athletic quarterback," Holtz said. "They want the prototype 6-4, 6-5, stand-in-there-and-deliver-the-ball guys. Then all of the sudden ... we're seeing it."

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet

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