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Jay Paterno: What was Old is New Again

by on January 24, 2013 6:39 AM

In the 1970s the NFL was awash in championship teams with quarterbacks who were mobile — maybe not by today’s standards but Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw won six NFL titles combined. Both could avoid the rush and make things happen. Fran Tarkenton was a wonderful scrambler, and he made it to a couple of Super Bowls.

The San Francisco 49ers great run in the 1980s through the mid-1990s was led by Joe Montana and Steve Young, both mobile in the play-action pass game and able to pick up first downs on scrambles.

Now you see a wave of mobile quarterbacks in the NFL. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck are all young with the ability to make first downs with their feet and their arms. In the AFC title game, Joe Flacco took off out of the pocket for a 12-yard gain.

As I watched Tom Brady slide with his leg up, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were witnessing an era starting to draw to a close. On a late fourth down, Brady moved up in the pocket to his left and threw an incompletion. NFL quarterbacks Wilson, Kaepernick, Luck and Flacco all would’ve run for first downs. RGIII would’ve run for a touchdown.

I am not suggesting Brady is no longer effective; quite the contrary. Brady is still the best in the world and has several great years ahead of him. But as you look at the latest wave of new starters, the trend is away from the strictly drop-back guys.

Mobile quarterbacks do change the game. They make third downs a lot more difficult to defend. On 3rd-and-5, to take away the short pass game, a defense can play two deep and keep the safeties back. Now the offense has a numbers advantage running the QB. If the defense plays man-to-man and the QB gets loose, it is vulnerable to a big run.

If the defense’s answer is to bring a safety down to prevent the QB from running, now the QB can throw the ball against soft zone coverage. It changes the dynamic.

Another current trend has been the excitement among people covering the NFL about the “new” read option, or, zone read offense.

New is hardly the word for what they are seeing in the NFL. In 1977 Bill Yeoman brought his split back veer offense up to Penn State. He had been running it for years. In the early 1970s the wishbone option was propelling the University of Texas, Alabama and Oklahoma to great seasons and national championships.

In 2005, Vince Young and Texas ran the zone read to a national title while Michael Robinson led Penn State to an 11-1 record with the same concept. That season, all four BCS bowl games were won by mobile quarterbacks running the zone read. In 2008, Tim Tebow ran the zone read to a national title.

The option was never big in the NFL because everyone feared getting the franchise quarterback injured. That fear is well-founded. Just ask any Washington Redskins fan. But there is a happy medium where the quarterback is enough of a threat but not a workhorse ball carrier.

The zone read will be a factor for a while. It tilts the balance of power toward the offense inside the 10-yard line. In the NFC title game, San Francisco’s running backs scored touchdowns off the zone read. Atlanta forgot one of the key rules in option defense; prevent dive play first then rally to tackle the quarterback.

Atlanta played the game with the idea that Kaepernick would not beat it with his feet. The problem was that Kaepernick was more than capable of beating it throwing the football. The new-wave mobile quarterbacks can throw the ball.

Ultimately, there is not an NFL owner who wants to see his franchise quarterback running the ball 12 to 15 times a game. The mobile quarterbacks will have to be able to win games passing.

One thing to bear in mind for the Super Bowl is that Kaepernick has only played half a season. He is relatively fresh and healthy and there are no games left after the Super Bowl. That may free San Francisco to run him more than it may have in previous weeks.

Beyond this year’s Super Bowl, the evolution of the quarterback position in the NFL is something worth watching. Is the zone read, and the mobile quarterback, a passing fancy? Or is it a return back to the days of quarterbacks who could pick up yards with their arms and their feet? The arrival of Oregon’s Chip Kelly in Philadelphia will bring another zone read/mobile quarterback proponent to the league. It will bear watching.

We may find that what was old is new again.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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