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The Plight of the Dual Threat Quarterback

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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The road to first-team repetitions for the dual-threat signal caller has been paved with many unique stories.

I've been talking about this matter since when I was coming out, when Vick came out, McNabb came out and all those people before. Everybody went through this mess and I hate to see that it's still going on in 2018.
~Vince Young

The quarterback position is the most preeminent in sports. No role comes with more prestige, no role comes with more pressure. In many respects, signal callers are the starting point for each and every football team. Correspondingly, the evaluation process is unrelenting -- and it should be. As football has evolved into a more free-flowing, up-tempo sport, however, progression, at the professional level, has been less responsive at the game's most important position.

Football is a game based in forward motion as, quite literally, everything the team in possession does is designed to advance. Considerations at quarterback need to fall in-line.     

Speed, or perhaps more conclusively, the ability to make plays, is generally regarded as the most valuable commodity across a depth chart. From edge-rushers to wide receivers, football's infrastructure has been revamped in an attempt to get faster, more dynamic players on the roster. A necessity at other positions, explosiveness is almost viewed as a nuisance under center. Surprising given various metrics that prove otherwise, there seems to be a lingering notion that athleticism and accuracy are mutually-exclusive skills. 

In recent years, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, all dual-threat talents, have taken teams to Super Bowls. Three of the NFL's brightest young stars, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson, are similar. Alex Smith, the league's reigning passing rating leader, was a versatile threat in college and uses mobility as an asset. So, too, do the likes of multi-time Pro Bowlers Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. From Randall Cunningham to Steve Young to Donovan McNabb to Michael Vick, there is a proven track record of success.   

Though a number of multi-faceted quarterbacks have found notable next level success, scrutiny still seems to be slanted towards prospects like Louisville's Lamar Jackson. While more opportunity does currently exist for players with a more diverse set of physical gifts, those chances often come with more external uncertainty and with less margin for error. Every mistake is viewed with a nod.    

The road to first-team repetitions for the dual-threat signal caller has been paved with many unique stories.

"I was used to it growing up in high school as well as in college, so I basically used it as motivation for me to change the thought-process of how they felt about the quarterback," explained Vince Young, former BCS National Champion, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl quarterback. "I used it as motivation to say 'listen, I can play this game, I can throw the ball from the pocket, but I also have the skill that if something breaks down, I can extend the play'."

At no other spot on the field is versatility considered an inhibiter of a primary responsibility. Under center, oddly, the ability to do more oftentimes comes with less of a grade. That perceptual roadblock has prevented a number of incredibly-talented quarterbacks, some of the most accomplished players in college football history, from showcasing who they are and what they do on the big stage. Directly and indirectly, playmakers have been asked to step aside.   

Whether going through the pre-draft process amidst talk of a position change or preparing for football's highest level while ignoring at least some of what has gotten a prospect to where he is, the process, for dual-threat passers, can be especially-trying. Such issues date back generations. Plenty of talent has been lost in translation in the transition.   

"I think it's just so difficult because they have such of a status quo and stereotype and numbers like size, hands and all that," Joe Hamilton, College Football Hall of Famer and Super Bowl XXXVII champion, detailed.

For all of the intricacies of evaluation, the status quo has long been the ultimate talent scout. It may be shifting some now, but the prototype is very particular. No matter how good, past quarterbacks lacking traditional skill sets or specific fixtures just haven't measured up.   

"It was difficult and the whole thought-process was 'prove them wrong'. Whatever they say negative, whether it be scouts, personnel department people or whoever and you go out there and you try to prove them wrong," Hamilton nodded. "I couldn't grow anymore so that was the biggest thing that I had going...I couldn't grow anymore."

Overcoming preconceived notions or unfair narratives has required extra work on a number of different fronts. Certain prospects have had to curb their own impulses physically while channeling their own reactions emotionally. Level to level, moving up has, in many cases, been an uphill climb for the dual-threat quarterback. Without the momentum of widespread support, prospects have had to be their own advocates in the face of adversity. 

"I'm really tired and fed up with it. I've been talking about this matter since when I was coming out, when Michael Vick came out, Donovan McNabb came out and all those people before. Everybody went through this mess and I hate to see that it's still going on in 2018," adding Young, referencing some of the feedback surrounding former Louisville Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

Taken, inexplicably, as the fifth quarterback off the board, Jackson was selected 32nd overall by the Baltimore Ravens. Far less-accomplished prospects were chosen in the hours before.  

No individual prompted more pre-draft discussion than Jackson, a dynamo the likes of which college football has never before seen. Jackson became the first player ever with 3,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in a single season, a feat he accomplished twice. He is the only non-senior in history to reach 9,000 career passing yards and 4,000 career rushing yards. Furthermore, Jackson compiled the most career yards all-time by a power five junior. His records are too many to count. 

More so than any other prospect, Jackson's profile was constantly critiqued. Debate about his potential was deep and wide-ranging, with some believing Jackson is a franchise quarterback and others suggesting a possible position change. Though any player entering the draft deserves to be nit-picked, the analysis of Jackson's game felt inconsistent and unfair. Jackson compares favorably to almost every other prospect in the class as a passer alone, but obsessions over abilities which should be an added bonus limited his upside to critics.

Outside opinions about Jackson's athleticism even influenced some of his decisions at the NFL Combine and Louisville's pro day; Jackson decided not to run the forty yard dash, one has to speculate, so that his speed wouldn't overshadow his efforts from the pocket. Jackson had to hide part of what made him one of college football's best players ever. The irony there is that mobility has helped accentuate the game's of a number of the league's leading performers. Four pro quarterbacks rushed for over 400 yards in the regular season a year ago.

"I respect Lamar, I've been watching him for a while. I had the opportunity to see him play in person, so I understand where he's coming from. Enough is enough, let the man go play football like he's been doing. He loves the game, he's a good guy, he doesn't get in trouble, so let the man do what he wants to do," Young added. "I am very proud of him speaking and telling people he wants to be a quarterback, doesn't feel like running the 40, just wants to play football, win ball games and be exciting for the fans across the world."

Traditional thinking has, at times, backed the quarterback position into a corner. Outdated frames of reference may be starting to fade, but the potential transformation, in terms of perception and practicum, is still in its early stages. The selection of Virginia Tech's Vick by the Atlanta Falcons with the number one overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft stands as a historical turning point. A decade later, the Carolina Panthers made Auburn's Newton the top choice. Vick and Newton became stars.

Vick was somewhat of a pioneer. Not necessarily a proficient passer out of college, he played the game with a revolutionary feel, showcasing physical talents, running and throwing, truly never before seen. What made Vick special and worthy of top-pick consideration was an unparalleled ability to make plays. He was an asset for his football team. 

For the legendary Dan Reeves, head coach of the Falcons at the time, his approach was both simple and profound; Reeves' perspective is how a quarterback, and any prospect, should be valued.

"Looking at the quarterbacks, we felt like, in watching him on film, he could do a lot of things and make you a lot better. You still need to have a good offensive line, but it's a lot different in the way they rush a guy like Mike Vick with how he could get outside of the pocket," Reeves shared. "We made the selection and certainly he turned out to be exactly what we thought he would be."

It's not that passers have to be athletic and multi-dimensional, it's simply that they can be.  

What is unique about the phraseology of quarterback evaluation is that mobility comes in many different forms. There is a powerful elasticity to versatility. As the current climate can attest to, there is room for all shapes and sizes. The moral of the story is that, while a certain talent threshold obviously must met to play quarterback at the highest level, there is wiggle room at the top, literally and figuratively. Welcome to modernity.  

"Is Aaron Rodgers a dual-threat quarterback? Is Ben Roethlisberger? It doesn't come in the form of Marcus Mariota or Mike Vick or Colin Kaepernick or these guys all the time," Hamilton continued. "Dual is maneuvering the pocket. Tom Brady is not a dual threat for the zone read, no sir, he's a dual threat as far as pocket awareness and being able to move around in there. That is dual threat to me."

The bottom line is the paradigm is shifting. More versatile players, yes, even at quarterback, come with options and put added pressure on opposing defenses. In a game of leverage, players with even the threat to make an unexpected play tilt the advantage in favor of the team with possession. Of course it has taken time, the NFL is home to the best athletes and coaches in the world, but the implementation of the run-pass option, long featured in college football, have become much more commonplace. 

Perhaps, the new-age quarterback is being redefined.  

"Looking at these guys out there like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, the list goes on, big Ben does it, it's just an extra factor that you can bring to the game. To me, it's all about winning, so if you have a quarterback that is a dual-threat, that can extend plays and make some good drives and put points on the board, why not put him behind center and let him do him?" Young asked. 

For some time now, football, including at the game's highest level, has been going through a very real reconfiguration.

"The game is changing, think putting linebackers on the defensive line, now the speed of the game is changing so you have to have somebody that can make plays with his legs," Young pointed out. "The biggest thing is we want to win and if you have guys that can make plays, extend plays and make it exciting for the fans, because it's all about entertainment, you just have to respect the talent that they bring to the table."

Simply put, prospects are earning their opportunities and making the most of them. As mentioned above, Smith led the NFL in passer rating last season, Wilson paced the league in touchdown passes and Watson was an early revelation. Prescott was the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Newton was the 2015 MVP. Expect Jackson, the next-in-line, to find his way.

Even still, more versatile quarterbacks are having to go the extra mile for a simple chance to gain an extra yard.  

"A guy like Doug Flutie, they said he was the smallest guy, they said he wouldn't be able to see over the offensive line, he wouldn't do this, he wouldn't do that. He did a really good job in the NFL," Young concluded."Enough is enough. We have quarterbacks in the league that do the same thing Jackson does and that is proof that it can work."

The journey of the dual-threat quarterback has been a long one. The story may just be getting started.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports