Mobile Quarterbacks and Injury Risk

Mobile Quarterbacks and Injury Risk
Mobile Quarterbacks and Injury Risk
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

When you combine the height of the two opposing quarterbacks, Super Bowl XLVII featured the tallest matchup in Super Bowl history between Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick at 154 inches. Sixteen months later, they stand as two of the richest quarterbacks in NFL history with contracts that could earn more than $240 million combined. That's enough to pay for some acting lessons before their next McDonald's commercial. Flacco did earn some stripes through his five seasons, but Kaepernick has essentially been a season-and-a-half starter in San Francisco. Teams that are not even highly quarterback-dependent are spending this type of money on the position, which makes you wonder: where are things headed when the next wave of players (Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, etc.) negotiate a new deal with a salary cap that hasn't been keeping up with the quarterback inflation?

Fortunately for those other teams, the Kaepernick contract is never quite as big as initial reports suggested. Kaepernick's $61 million in guaranteed money would be the most in NFL history, but technically just over $13 million is guaranteed at signing. There are several clauses relating to injury, including a disability policy worth $20 million to the 49ers should Kaepernick suffer a career-ending injury. Any game Kaepernick misses due to injury after 2014 will cost him $125,000.

So far Kaepernick has avoided injuries in his brief career, but fans are often worried about the durability of a "running quarterback." Prolific runners like Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick all suffered at least one significant season-ending injury in their careers. Sometimes it takes an extra season before the player gets back on track; as a worst-case scenario, Culpepper was never himself again.

We have a good recent example as well. Robert Griffin III had a great rookie season, but multiple injuries, including the very serious torn ACL, certainly had an impact on his significant regression in 2013. That's the last thing the 49ers need to happen with Kaepernick, because they're still trying to climb to the summit before their Super Bowl window closes.

Every big contract carries some risk in the NFL, but should we believe a running quarterback is a bigger risk? Kaepernick and Wilson can have more designed runs on one drive than a pocket passer like Peyton Manning has in an entire season, but we know what still happened to Manning's neck and how his career nearly ended prematurely. Carson Palmer and Tom Brady tore their ACL's after throwing a pass from inside the pocket. Last year, Aaron Rodgers took a sack not unlike the dozens he takes every year, but that one just so happened to break his collarbone and nearly cost Green Bay a postseason opportunity during his prime.

Injuries will always have that element of randomness, but quarterbacks can be taught to do smarter things on the field in an attempt to prevent or limit them. Expanding on a study I did for the 2012 season, I charted how today's young, running quarterbacks run with the ball and how (or if) they try to protect themselves.

Note: If anyone is wondering why Andrew Luck was not included, it's because he almost never runs the ball by design. He just runs for his life in Indianapolis.

2013 Rushing Breakdowns

Timing is everything and these players entered a league that's more pass-happy than ever, but also more welcoming to innovation. It's true that the concept of a running quarterback is nothing new to the NFL. Bobby Douglass ran wild in the 1970s and he was just as much of a terrible passer in his era as Tim Tebow was in his. Wilson gets compared often to Fran Tarkenton, because both of them love to hold the ball forever and scramble around before finding an open receiver. Fifty years later, that style still succeeds at a high level.

What makes this group different is that while they're usually asked to throw the ball, they also have designed runs to take advantage of their speed. They get to run the show in today's game with all of its fancy offensive wrinkles like the hyper-speed no-huddle offense or the zone-read option that Griffin arguably popularized best with the Shanahans in 2012. Kaepernick has roots with the pistol formation going back to his Nevada days. Newton has trademarked the "QB Power" as his play in the NFL. Passing will always be the main priority, but it's now reasonable to expect 70-100 rushes per season from these quarterbacks as well.

Here's the comparison for each of the four quarterbacks between 2012 and 2013 (playoffs included).

Running Quarterbacks: 2012 vs. 2013 (Playoffs Included)
Stat Cam Newton Colin Kaepernick Robert Griffin Russell Wilson
2012 2013 2012 2013 2012 2013 2012 2013
Runs (excluding kneeldowns) 118 110 79 106 116 83 98 89
Yards 753 654 691 778 846 492 629 602
YPC 6.38 5.95 8.75 7.34 7.29 5.93 6.42 6.76
Designed run YPC 5.74 4.01 9.14 4.44 6.32 5.22 5.95 4.41
Scramble YPC 8.31 9.29 9.81 10.36 9.36 7.62 7.23 8.32
Designed run % 67.8% 61.8% 46.8% 42.5% 59.5% 49.4% 37.8% 32.6%
Option/zone-read runs 42 25 21 25 49 37 26 24
Option/zone-read % 35.6% 22.7% 26.6% 23.6% 42.2% 44.6% 26.5% 27.0%
Success Rate 54.2% 63.6% 57.0% 57.5% 62.1% 50.6% 64.3% 53.9%

The first thing that stands out is how all four suffered a decline in yards per carry on designed runs in 2013, Kaepernick most of all. We should probably credit the defenses for studying the 2012 film and getting a better feel for these guys. They're all still deadly scramblers, but they should be easier to stop on designed plays. Their percentage of runs by design still remained close to 2012 with Griffin understandably having the biggest decline. Washington did still use their quarterback on zone-read keepers the most, but you can see it's not a frequent play. Carolina dialed it back the most in 2013.

Success Rate was calculated the same way we do it for running backs: a successful play gains at least 40 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third/fourth down with some score-margin adjustments for the fourth quarter. Griffin and Wilson were not nearly as consistent last year as they were the year before, but Newton made a big jump while Kaepernick stayed almost the same.

Next we'll look at the 2013 rushing breakdowns for each quarterback individually.

Robert Griffin III

Robert Griffin III: 2013 Rushing Breakdown
Type of run Carries Yards YPC TD Success Rate
Scramble on pass play 37 282 7.62 0 54.1%
Option/zone-read 37 202 5.46 0 56.8%
QB draw 3 11 3.67 0 0.0%
QB sneak 1 1 1.00 0 100.0%
Designed 41 214 5.22 0 53.7%
Not Designed 37 282 7.62 0 54.1%
Kneeldowns 3 -3 -1.00 0 -
Broken play 1 -4 -4.00 0 0.0%
Botched snap/handoff 4 0 0.00 0 0.0%
Total 86 489 5.69 0 -
Total (w/o kneeldowns) 83 492 5.93 0 50.6%

After scoring seven rushing touchdowns as a rookie, Griffin had none in 2013. He also never had a run longer than 26 yards after four of them in 2012. Clearly there was a lot of hesitation early in the season over how the knee would hold. Before the Week 5 bye, Griffin had just four designed runs. Mike Shanahan certainly took some criticism for using a hobbled Griffin on the ground in 2012, but he may have held back too much last season and that's not even considering the way he shut a healthy Griffin down for the final three games. Griffin scored three touchdowns on 13 quarterback draws in 2012, but last year he had just three quarterback draws for 11 yards. His success rate on the zone-read option dropped from 73.5 percent to 56.8 percent.

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick: 2013 Rushing Breakdown (Incl. Playoffs)
Type of run Carries Yards YPC TD Success Rate
Scramble on pass play 56 580 10.36 0 64.3%
Option/zone-read 25 70 2.80 3 44.0%
QB sweep 4 15 3.75 1 50.0%
Bootleg 6 69 11.50 0 83.3%
QB draw 5 35 7.00 0 60.0%
QB sneak 4 7 1.75 0 75.0%
QB power 1 4 4.00 1 100.0%
Designed 45 200 4.44 5 55.6%
Not designed 56 580 10.36 0 64.3%
Kneeldowns 12 -11 -0.92 0 -
Broken play 2 -2 -1.00 0 0.0%
Botched snap/handoff 3 0 0.00 0 0.0%
Total 118 767 6.50 5 -
Total (w/o kneeldowns) 106 778 7.34 5 57.5%

They used to call Lance Alworth "Bambi" back in the day, but Kaepernick is the guy who runs like a deer through NFL defenses. There was no slump coming off the Super Bowl loss, but his first full season as a starter was not nearly as dynamic as many expected. Not having Michael Crabtree for most of the season played a factor, but even on the ground Kaepernick didn't dominate as much until the postseason where he ran the ball 25 times for 244 yards (31.4 percent of his season total).

What's the chance some of that was by design? Bomani Jones predicted a big rushing January for Kaepernick in December. If running makes him an injury risk, then he can afford to save himself for the playoffs where he can go all out because there is no next week. That's basically a NBA strategy as we see guys like Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade limit their regular-season minutes to best prepare for a deep playoff run. Given his new contract situation, this could become Kaepernick's strategy, but that only works as long as San Francisco has a team good enough to not need his maximum rushing value.

Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson: 2013 Rushing Breakdown (Incl. Playoffs)
Type of run Carries Yards YPC TD Success Rate
Scramble on pass play 57 474 8.32 0 57.9%
Option/zone-read 24 110 4.58 1 54.2%
Bootleg 2 16 8.00 0 50.0%
QB sneak 3 2 0.67 0 33.3%
Designed 29 128 4.41 1 51.7%
Not Designed 57 474 8.32 0 57.9%
Kneeldowns 18 -21 -1.17 0 -
Botched snap/handoff 3 0 0.00 0 0.0%
Total 107 581 5.43 1 -
Total (w/o kneeldowns) 89 602 6.76 1 53.9%

Wilson deserves the Scramblin' Man award, because over 60 percent of his runs are scrambles. He's led all quarterbacks in regular-season scrambles in each of his first two seasons. He had 57 scrambles for 412 yards in 2012 and 57 scrambles for 474 yards in 2013. Wilson may not have the strength of Newton or the breakaway speed of Griffin and Kaepernick, but he may be the shiftiest runner of the four. Queue up his four-yard scramble on fourth-and-3 in Houston last season if you want to see one of the best plays of the year. Some of his efficiency dropped last year when dealing with an injured offensive line, but he's very much a dual-threat and will only be more dangerous once he starts getting rid of the ball in a more timely fashion. Then again, plays like this are why you deal with the scrambler.

Cam Newton

Cam Newton: 2013 Rushing Breakdown (Incl. Playoffs)
Type of run Carries Yards YPC TD Success Rate
Scramble on pass play 41 381 9.29 2 68.3%
Option/zone-read 25 115 4.60 1 52.0%
QB draw 16 73 4.56 1 62.5%
QB power 13 35 2.69 1 61.5%
QB sneak 8 21 2.63 0 87.5%
QB sweep 5 18 3.60 1 60.0%
Bootleg 1 11 11.00 0 100.0%
Designed 68 273 4.01 4 61.8%
Not Designed 41 381 9.29 2 68.3%
Kneeldowns 11 -15 -1.36 0 -
Botched snap 1 0 0.00 0 0.0%
Total 121 639 5.28 6 -
Total (w/o kneeldowns) 110 654 5.95 6 63.6%

Newton was the only quarterback of the four to actually increase his success rate on zone-read keepers, but he did not hit the big plays with it in 2013. Newton's the only quarterback carrying the ball by design on over 60 percent of his runs, but much of that is due to his usage in short-yardage situations. Even though Mike Tolbert has taken some of his goal-line carries, Newton's still a favorite to get the ball on the QB power (also known as dive) and plunge his way into the line. He's been eight-of-13 in success rate for those plays in each of the last two years.

2013 Safety Breakdown

Now that we've learned how they are running the ball, let's switch gears to how they are protecting themselves with the ball in their hands. A play can end in a few different ways and some are certainly less painful than others. First, here are the 2012 results.

2012 Rushing QB Safety Watch
TYPE OF PLAY R.Griffin R.Wilson C.Kaepernick C.Newton
Total runs (minus kneeldowns) 116 98 79 118
Ran out of bounds 35 15 30 12
Hit out of bounds 10 4 0 5
Tackled - straight 34 23 19 47
Tackled - diving forward 13 26 8 29
Tackled from behind 2 1 1 5
QB slide 9 21 8 14
Walk-in scoring play 4 5 7 1
No play (fumbled handoff/other) 3 3 6 1
Sandwich hit (mult. defenders) 4 0 0 2
QB slipped on his own 1 0 0 0
Body slammed 1 0 0 0
Pitched ball on option 0 0 0 2
Ran out of bounds % 30.2% 15.3% 38.0% 10.2%
Total out of bounds % 38.8% 19.4% 38.0% 14.4%
Slide % 7.8% 21.4% 10.1% 11.9%
Tackled % 55.2% 55.1% 35.4% 74.6%

Do not place a ton of stock in the difference between "Tackled - straight" and "Tackled - diving forward." This was my attempt to differentiate between hits where the quarterback's forward momentum was stopped almost immediately (straight) versus plays where he somewhat absorbs the hit and falls forward. Both plays involve the quarterback taking contact. Generally, the quarterback should avoid the crushing, straight-on hit since that could involve a leg planted into the ground that could start to twist, but diving can certainly cause concussions and other injuries. Sliding or getting out of bounds are preferable safety measures. Quarterbacks still get hit sometimes when they do that, but that can also draw a 15-yard flag, so there's an added benefit.

These players are usually too fast to get caught from behind, but we do see Newton having more than the other three combined in 2012. That includes a takedown in Week 17 in New Orleans that made Newton temporarily leave the game, which is something he's otherwise never had to do in three years. When it's a horse collar tackle, those can be very dangerous.

Here are the 2013 results.

2013 Rushing QB Safety Watch
TYPE OF PLAY R.Griffin R.Wilson C.Kaepernick C.Newton
Total runs (minus kneeldowns) 83 89 106 110
Ran out of bounds 32 31 26 10
Hit out of bounds 7 4 4 6
Tackled - straight 19 18 22 42
Tackled - diving forward 11 13 12 17
Tackled from behind 1 4 6 8
QB slide 9 14 31 21
Walk-in scoring play 0 1 2 3
No play (fumbled handoff/other) 4 3 3 1
Sandwich hit (mult. defenders) 0 1 0 1
Pitched ball on option 0 0 0 1
Ran out of bounds % 38.6% 34.8% 24.5% 9.1%
Total out of bounds % 47.0% 39.3% 28.3% 14.5%
Slide % 10.8% 15.7% 29.2% 19.1%
Tackled % 45.8% 44.9% 41.5% 67.3%

Some things did not change much. Kaepernick is the hardest to tackle, Wilson's the hardest to blast cleanly, Griffin still gets hit out of bounds the most and Newton rarely ever goes out of bounds.

The big changes are most interesting. Wilson, an expert of the slide, more than doubled his runs out of bounds. Everyone but Kaepernick had a lower percentage of tackled runs, though Kaepernick's still the lowest overall. Kaepernick nearly tripled his rate of slides.

Griffin had the most room to grow in this category because of his reckless rookie style. For his body frame, he had to play smarter and he seemed to make an effort to do so last year. He still takes too many hits near the sidelines, but he did increase his slides and runs out of bounds.

I won't pretend you're going to see "SLD" and "ROOB" as stats in any future game logs, but when people were tracking how often Griffin's linemen picked him up after a sack last year, I think this stuff is worth looking at. Like any stat, they certainly are not created equally.

More than anything, the slide has a lot of variation for these players. Not everyone in the NFL can have a Major League Baseball career should they choose to accept it like Wilson, but his baseball experience shows up with his perfect feet-first slides. Kaepernick's almost there, though he tends to really lay out his whole body for them. Newton meanwhile loves to dive forward for the maximum gain. By doing so, he loses the protection quarterbacks are afforded when they slide with their feet first. The upside is he is gaining a little more yardage, because the ball is spotted where the quarterback starts his feet-first slide. But Newton's style is more like what a running back would do since they do not have that protection from hits.

Then there's Griffin, who treats the quarterback slide like a guy looking for a clean spot to squat and take a shit in the woods. It's ugly, it's unnatural, and it's probably one of the worst things for his surgically repaired knee. Here's an example of your average Griffin slide from 2013:

For such an athletic guy, the slide has to be more fluid than that. In the same game, Griffin ran a quarterback sneak, which is usually the most boring, but efficient, play from scrimmage. Normally the quarterback just takes the snap and follows his center up the gut to convert, but Griffin bounced it right, barely got the first down, and somehow ended up in this final position:

While 2013 was an improvement for how he avoided the big shots, there are still too many plays like these last two. This is why Griffin should be considered the riskiest quarterback to invest in for the long-term. He's also last in line to get a contract extension, as Newton and Wilson will be the next to sign.

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Newton's durability has been amazing given the unique short-yardage responsibilities he's had. His larger frame allows for more punishment, but it does make him slower and that's probably why he gets tackled from behind more often. One play I would like to see improved is the zone-read option when he holds it too long and gets crushed in the backfield. Again, this is a case where his leg could be planted and that could lead to serious injury. When the 2014 Panthers trot out their underwhelming receiving corps and inexperienced offensive line, Newton may have to do more running than ever before to have any offensive success. If he survives that type of workload without a scratch, he might actually be Superman.

Wilson has the Super Bowl win and a great claim to a contract that exceeds Kaepernick's. There's no reason Seattle should not reward him handsomely within the next year. His style (and career path) is similar to a shorter Ben Roethlisberger as he's always looking for the big play with his arm first. Seattle should start to put more on his plate in the passing game and that's where he can make his biggest improvements. Just make sure he stays away from motorcycles this summer.

After charting these players for the last two years, Kaepernick's rushing ability still impresses me the most. No one gets from one point to the other with as much speed and carefulness as Kaepernick. He knows how to slide and when to get out of bounds. He knows when it's crunch time and the extra yard is necessary.

Does that make him a $20 million per year player? Probably not, but worrying he's going to get hurt running the ball is not a valid reason to downgrade him. His potential ceiling is worth that contract, and if there was a quarterback who could throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season, Kaepernick looks the prototype.

All of these quarterbacks have rare skills that deserve to be paid a premium price. It's only a matter of time before the next round of massive contracts are handed out. When the ramifications on the salary cap set in and roster weaknesses appear, these quarterbacks will have to use every ounce of their talent to keep their teams competitive. By then, we'll find out just how much they're really worth.


18 comments, Last at 19 Jun 2014, 2:19am

#1 by jonnyblazin // Jun 10, 2014 - 12:47pm

Nice article, but just to nitpick, I don't think Russell Wilson has a spot in MLB waiting for him. He hit .228 with little power as a 22 year old in A ball, that's pretty bad.

Points: 0

#2 by Perfundle // Jun 10, 2014 - 12:55pm

Was Griffin hit in the head on that QB slide? His posture looks disturbingly like the post-concussion fencing response:

Points: 0

#16 by CaffeineMan // Jun 12, 2014 - 4:33pm

Who came up with that name? If I came en garde like that, my coach(es) would have given me a concussion... :-)

Points: 0

#4 by Perfundle // Jun 10, 2014 - 1:33pm

By the way, how come Roethelisberger didn't become the NFL's highest-paid player in 2008 like people expect Wilson and then Luck to become? Was it because of the motorcycle accident and subsequent underwhelming season in 2006?

Points: 0

#5 by Travis // Jun 10, 2014 - 1:57pm

Guessing here:

1) Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were in mid-career when Roethlisberger signed his extension.

2) The two years remaining on his rookie deal (as a #12 overall pick) at the time of the extension negated some leverage and helped depress his AAV.

Roethlisberger was, however, the highest-paid player in the year 2008 thanks to his $25m signing bonus. JaMarcus Russell was 4th.

Points: 0

#8 by Perfundle // Jun 10, 2014 - 2:33pm

It was actually Manning and Palmer he was behind, not Brady. And Rodgers is in mid-career too, but the rumored $25-26 million for Wilson and Luck significantly outstrips Rodgers' $22 million, although admittedly Rodgers did take less than he could've gotten on an open market. The second point is a good one.

Points: 0

#10 by commissionerleaf // Jun 10, 2014 - 3:48pm

Up to 2008, Roethlisberger was a guy who had never played 16 games and who had all of one season with both 400 passes and a 60% completion rate. And at that point, Pittsburgh's offense was about running the football; the years of Roethlisberger watching his lemons of an offensive line be ground into fine paste and nonetheless making lemonade came later.

Roethlisberger was probably overpaid a little bit due to the Super Bowls. But he's been worth the money as it turned out even if the contract looked Flaccoesque at the time.

Points: 0

#12 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 10, 2014 - 4:20pm

Big Ben was one of the most efficient QBs to ever play the game his first few years. You don't need to throw often when you're a couple inches from averaging 9 yards per attempt.

I think it was pretty obvious to people watching he was a great young QB who was on an even greater team and thus didn't need to be relied on.

Points: 0

#13 by Scott Kacsmar // Jun 10, 2014 - 4:25pm

Before Aaron Rodgers took over in GB and Drew Brees started throwing for 5,000 yards every year, there was a brief time when the only active QBs who had a combination of efficient stats and team success were Peyton, Brady and Ben. I kind of miss those days.

2007 flashback:

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#14 by commissionerleaf // Jun 11, 2014 - 11:24am

Trent Green was pretty good in that time frame, if not as successful. Favre had declined by then, but Donovan McNabb was still really good for half a season before his annual injury, and the Eagles obviously had a lot of success. Carson Palmer looked like the second coming of Peyton Manning for a few years.

Points: 0

#15 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 11, 2014 - 2:16pm

McNabb was never really that efficient. He was good, but hamstrung by his receivers. Even in your example, you can only point to half a season for him. Palmer also had a very short time of good efficiency, he was hurt after only his second year starting, he also *only* averaged 7.8 yards per attempt at his peak.

Ben's per play stats were just off the charts.

Points: 0

#3 by Ben // Jun 10, 2014 - 1:26pm

Note: If anyone is wondering why Andrew Luck was not included, it's because he almost never runs the ball by design. He just runs for his life in Indianapolis.

As a Colts fan, I wish this was a joke, but it's not.

Points: 0

#17 by Bobman // Jun 19, 2014 - 2:16am

Agreed, but his running stats are quite good. He's big and he had Newton speed at the combine, plus we know he CAN do it if pressed. Now we just need those runs to be voluntary....

Points: 0

#6 by theslothook // Jun 10, 2014 - 2:09pm

We want to be answering multiple questions here: Does mobility necessarily open you up to more hits than standing in the pocket would? Is there a very strong correlation between number of hits to injury? Are not all hits created equal and it's just a few particular type of hits that do it? And finally, does getting hit have a strong negative relationship on both qb longevity and long run qb performance?

Trying to run statistical analysis on this is hard because of sample size but also survivorship bias.

My general sense: I think it's just how often you get hit that really matters, although again, qb careers are longer now so it's hard to tease out the effect. I also think getting hit a lot reduces both your career length and prime of your career. It's what especially worries me about Luck. While it's true his o line is a sieve, he also tends to hold the ball a ton and actually has no problem waiting even if it means a bone crushing hit. This is the complete opposite approach that Manning takes and I for one hate it.

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#11 by SandyRiver // Jun 10, 2014 - 4:06pm

Those questions bring to mind the greatest scrambler ever (IMO, and I would not rate him the greatest running QB), Fran Tarkenton. In 18 years his only significant injury was a broken leg suffered during a routine sack in his next to last season. Yet if scrambling abundance were measured by gametime spent avoiding tacklers in one's own backfield, Tarkenton's record would probably never be approached, much less beaten.

Was his durability just freaky happenstance? Ability to avoid solid hits? Did the exceeding rarity of called QB runs, other than sneaks, play into it? Maybe it was the fact that he was always looking to extend the play and complete the pass, with running for yardage the last resort.

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#18 by Bobman // Jun 19, 2014 - 2:19am

Another interesting aspect of his durability was his rather small stature. I know all positions were smaller on average back then, but IIRC Fran is about 6-0 and not bulky, so any beatings he took, went right to the bottom line, as it were. Maybe being smallish and lithe helped him escape serious direct impact shots...

Points: 0

#9 by Karl Cuba // Jun 10, 2014 - 2:54pm

Nice article Scott.

Points: 0

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