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Have We Seen The Last Of The Pocket Quarterbacks?

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Matt Ryan has been compared to Tom Brady, as he relies heavily on pre-snap reads to gain first downs. Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images.
Matt Ryan has been compared to Tom Brady, as he relies heavily on pre-snap reads to gain first downs. Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images.

The National Football League is a league of change. Since its beginning, players have become faster, bigger and plays have become more elaborate. From the power offenses of old to the high passing league of today, many things have changed. However, when we look at games, we can notice that the pocket-style quarterback has been the norm. From Johnny Unitas to Tom Brady, pocket quarterbacks have been performing for decades in the league. However, recently some new young guns have taken over the NFL. Newcomers like Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck have been identified as the new leaders of their pack.

The shared characteristic of these newcomers is the fact that they can sometimes rely on their legs to gain a first down, something quarterbacks like Brady and Manning do very rarely. This wave of new exciting players has brought crowds into stadiums and experts to question whether a new style of quarterbacking has come to the NFL. The more athletic quarterback may be more stylish, but is it efficient both in the short term and in the long term?

The 49ers, with Kaepernick leading a run heavy option offense, fell short of a Superbowl win last year. The Seattle Seahawks led by Russell Wilson are heavy favorites for the title this season, and even though it is mainly because of a virile defense, Wilson has played great so far, throwing for 664 yards and six touchdowns in three games. Luck continues his great progression, remarkably beating the stout 49ers defense last week. As for Griffin III, he struggles, and it can be attributed to a lingering injury that was aggravated against the Wilson-led Seahawks last January.

These quarterbacks bring concepts of the college game with them. Since college coaches have less time than professional coaches to teach football schemes, they often end up relying on pure physical superiority instead of complicated concepts. As a result, scrambling quarterbacks often end up in a variation of the spread offense, which focuses on creating lanes and open spaces for faster and more agile players. Scrambling quarterbacks thrive in those kinds of systems as they have space to perform. 

The main problems that seem to arise with these quarterbacks are their security and their ability to lead a complex offense. Such players can often get away with their physical superiority in high school and college, but when they hit the pros, it’s a whole new game. Lanes are smaller and there are much less open spaces on the field. They can’t outrun linebackers any more, and when they get caught, hits are harder. The case of RGIII is the classic example of the athletic quarterback who discovers the hard way that it might be better to lean on reading receivers and spotting bad coverages than on the legs to win games. 

And this is when it gets good. Recently, players like Wilson, Kaepernick and Wilson seem to have developed that reflex of pass first, run second. The problem with scrambling quarterbacks is that they are often perceived as incapable of fully adapting to a pass-first system. Eventually, their tendency to try to overrun opponents is damaging both for their health and their team. On the other hand, it has been shown in the past that pocket-style quarterbacks are easily disturbed when blitzed and there are no open receivers. I mean, have you seen Tom Brady and Peyton Manning try to escape the rush?

Like in most things, the best would be a balanced quarterback thinking like Brady in the first seconds of the play, and having Griffin’s III legs when things heat up. The only quarterback that is playing right now that shows such ability is Andrew Luck. The quarterback out of Stanford does not scare anyone with his legs, but he certainly is more athletic than the classic quarterback. Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers fits the same mold as Luck, as he can sometimes rely on his athleticism to evade pass rushers when there are no options downfield.

With the NFL protecting more and more receivers and quarterbacks, it is safe to say that the pocket style quarterback will always have a place in the NFL. It might change. But for the moment, Manning and Brady can still be considered the models for rookie quarterbacks. 

Two similar quarterbacks will go head to head this Sunday night, as the New England Patriots will meet the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta’s quarterback Matt Ryan has been compared to Tom Brady, as both rely on reading coverages to win. Ryan has the second highest winning percentage of any quarterback who has played more than 25 games with a winning percentage of 0.704 in the regular season, just behind his Sunday night opponent, who has a 0.781 winning percentage.

The Falcons offense is much more threatening than the Patriots, as players like Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones can take over a game at any time. On the other side, Tom Brady has to deal with new receivers, and even though the first two games were rough, it seems like the offense is getting in sync. The possible return of tight end Rob Gronkowski could also help Brady and the run game.

The New England defense has shown some promise in recent games, but now it faces its biggest challenge. It should perform well, but it won’t be able to limit the Atlanta offense to fewer points than the New England offense. The Matt Ryan-Mike Smith duo will win again at home, by a close margin.

Patriots 24, Falcons 27