Zach Wilson, Saquon Barkley, and Playing Out of Position
NFL Week 5 - The history of the NFL is one of ever-increasing specialization. Players have gone from two-way all-purpose players to specialized offensive and defensive platoons. Everyone used to kick and punt; now kicking has its own positions which only come onto the field for a handful of plays. Bell-cow running backs are a dying breed; committees are the word of the day. We have slot receivers, nickel corners, dedicated pass-rushers, two-down linebackers, long snappers and H-backs. We have even seen teams experiment with subbing in a quarterback with a bigger arm for Hail Marys and other desperation shots, or bring in a closer such as Ryan Fitzpatrick subbing for Tua Tagoviloa during the latter's rookie season. And there have been suggestions for even more specialization in the future—snap or game limits for players to make up for the expanded schedule, expanded rosters to help deal with the workload, and so on and so forth. We love specialization! It's part of what makes the NFL great—players playing specific roles has allowed strategy and philosophy to blossom into what it has become today.
That being said, we all go crazy when someone goes out there to do something that is explicitly not their job.
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) September 13, 2022
Eno Benjamin, football player. pic.twitter.com/9OcaObRruK
— PHNX Cardinals (@PHNX_Cardinals) October 4, 2022
Just asked punter Johnny Hekker about his fake punt pass and how y'all were impressed with him going through his reads. He told me he was a starting quarterback for two years in high school and to make sure to shout out Bothell HS in Washington State. pic.twitter.com/6heuRlXHF8
— Carolina Blitz (@KeepBlitzin) October 3, 2022
Week 4 of the 2022 season was a banner week for guys doing things outside of their job description. Eno Benjamin was forced into action as the kickoff man for Arizona, with the former high school soccer player taking up duties from the injured Matt Prater and making a crushing tackle. Johnny Hekker, the world's best-passing punter, scanned the field during a fake punt attempt for Carolina and found his third read—brought back by penalty, because the Panthers can't have nice things, but still. Even players we have become accustomed to doing things out of position went off, with Deebo Samuel getting his fair share of carries in a depleted San Francisco backfield and Taysom Hill doing … whatever it is Taysom Hill is supposed to do, with the Saints using a seven-lineman, four-tight end package to score a touchdown against the Vikings. Not a ton of 704 personnel groupings in our datasets.
As @JeffDuncan_ pointed out, the Saints trotted out a JUMBO jumbo package for the their TD run by Taysom Hill. 7 offensive linemen and 3 tight ends. Vikings were in their 3-4 base. pic.twitter.com/HGssZh2Vyi
— Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) October 4, 2022
But the epicenter of the "that's not your job" universe was in New Jersey, as both the Giants and Jets ended up with some top-tier Guys Doing Other Things moments.
The Giants saw both of their active quarterbacks go down with injury. Daniel Jones sprained his ankle and could barely move; Tyrod Taylor was knocked out with a concussion. With very few other options—and sitting on a lead, so throwing wasn't a huge priority—the Giants turned to Saquon Barkley to cameo as a Wildcat quarterback until Jones could hobble back onto the field to at least hand the ball off.
SAQUON BARKLEY IS IN AT QUARTERBACK!!!!
I REPEAT, QUARTERBACK!!!!
Both of the Giants QBs are injured. pic.twitter.com/8JsgQKs9v4
— Darren M. Haynes (@DarrenMHaynes) October 2, 2022
Meanwhile, the Jets used some trickeration to score their first touchdown of the day against the Steelers, running a reverse option pass and having Braxton Berrios find a wide-open Zach Wilson in the end zone for a touchdown.
Zach Wilson is back, catching touchdowns and hitting the Griddy 😂
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 2, 2022
Wilson's touchdown catch was the first ever by a Jets quarterback, crossing their name off of the list. As of right now, 24 franchises have had their quarterbacks catch a touchdown pass; a rare feat worth celebrating.
The last time each franchise had a quarterback catch a touchdown pass. pic.twitter.com/F5Z8GVSq54
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) October 5, 2022
One day—one fine, glorious day—we'll be able to fill that table out, with all 32 franchises finally finding ways to use their quarterbacks as Walter Camp intended. We shall not rest, we shall not relax, until all 32 teams have seen their quarterbacks griddying in the end zone. I'm fairly sure that's how Tobin Rote celebrated his touchdown in 1952, at any rate.
It is Scramble tradition to celebrate these unorthodox sorts of plays. In the past, we have ranked emergency backup quarterbacks, celebrated the Big Man Touchdown, and created a starting lineup of nothing but quarterbacks. So, in that tradition, let's heavily over-analyze the eight franchises that have yet to have a quarterback receiving touchdown, and figure out which one will be next!
I say "eight," but eagle-eyed viewers with a standard-issue number of fingers may look at that table above and note that there are nine "NEVER" entries. The Colts are the discrepancy here, as George Taliaferro caught a pair of touchdowns for the 1953 Baltimore Colts, their first year of existence. (Technically. The history of the Colts franchise is about as clear as Matt Rhule's gameday decision-making process, so we shall leave that to one side for now.) Taliaferro was a back, alright—he's listed on Pro Football Reference as a halfback-tailback-quarterback-defensive back, because positions in ye olden days were a lot more fluid than today; see that opening paragraph about specialization. Taliaferro ended up starting three games at quarterback for the Colts in 1953, at the end of the year when the team had just given up. None of his touchdown catches came in games he started at quarterback, but he did throw multiple passes in games where he caught touchdowns. We're going to count him for now, but warn the Colts to polish up their resume for future reference.
That leaves us with the Panthers, Buccaneers, Commanders, Giants, 49ers, Cardinals, Ravens, and Raiders. To figure out which team will be next, we're going to look at the four key factors involved in a quarterback touchdown catch:
- Quarterback Receiving Prowess. Catching a ball is an athletic feat, and not all players are equally in position to pull that off. You'd much rather have former college receiver Ryan Tannehill catching passes than, say, statuesque Kirk Cousins.
- Non-Quarterback Throwing Skill. You need to throw a soft, catchable ball to help these poor quarterbacks have a chance. We may laugh at Taysom Hill, starting quarterback, but having him on your roster opens up tons of options for tricks and confusion.
- Coach Creativity. It's much harder to catch a touchdown pass if your coach doesn't call a play that has you running a pass pattern. Not impossible, mind you—Marcus Mariota can attest to that—but more opportunities equals a higher chance that this sort of thing can happen.
- Offensive Desperation. While any team can call a trick play, you're more likely to see them from offenses that are struggling to move the ball in standard ways. There's a reason the Jets called multiple plays involving throwing the ball to Zach Wilson last week; they're in the bottom 10 in offensive DVOA and need a little bit of extra work to move the ball forward.
Taking those factors into account, let's count down the eight remaining teams from least to most likely to be rising to the heights of Zach Wilson and the New York Jets over the remainder of this season.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We have, technically, seen Tom Brady attempt to catch passes before. He's 3-for-3 on regular-season targets, hauling in a pass in 2001, 2015 and 2018, but it's obviously his drop in the Super Bowl against the Eagles that is on top of most people's minds—including, for that matter, Tom Brady.
Tom Brady 😂😂
"I sure as hell can't catch anything. Everyone has seen that drop against the Eagles in the Super Bowl"
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) October 4, 2021
There's really nothing to sell the Buccaneers as a viable quarterback touchdown target. Byron Leftwich has called one non-QB pass in his time as Tampa Bay coordinator; an incomplete pass from Leonard Fournette last Halloween. Russell Gage has thrown a touchdown pass, so there's something there, I suppose. But taking the ball away from the 10th-ranked passing offense this year so you could throw a target to a 45-year-old man seems suboptimal, to say the least.
7. Baltimore Ravens
At first glance, you might think that the Ravens should be higher. They have not one but two athletic quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley, and they have a head coach who is willing to take risks in John Harbaugh. It's a match made in heaven, right? Well, no—Greg Roman hasn't called a skill position pass since 2016, and has just four in his career in San Francisco, Buffalo, and Baltimore. Roman has interesting play designs, but they're mostly on how to use all 11 players in the rushing attack, not weird tricks in the passing game. The Ravens don't really have someone you trust to throw the ball, either. I guess you'd call it for Devin Duvernay and hope that he learned something from cousin Kyler Murray. But with Baltimore moving the ball well up and down the field, I don't see the Ravens digging too deep into their bag of passing tricks anytime soon.
6. Arizona Cardinals
On Tuesday's FO Data Show, I suggested the Cardinals might be high on this list, featuring another athletic quarterback in Kyler Murray and an offense that sometimes crashes into its own way. But like Baltimore, I think there are play-calling and passing issues here that are just too much to overcome. Kliff Kingsbury has had one non-QB offensive player throw a pass in the NFL; that was Christian Kirk, and he's now getting paid oodles of money in Florida. There's not an obvious passing candidate on Arizona's current roster; Rondale Moore is probably your best bet. And calling a pass to a quarterback requires creativity we just haven't seen out of Kingsbury in the NFL. Kingsbury was hired to be a head coach because of his "elite play-calling creativity," and yet that hasn't really been evident with the Cardinals; we're still all waiting for the Air Raid offense to take the league by storm. The Cardinals haven't had an offensive DVOA above 3.2% yet with Kingsbury in charge, and it seems like their best plays are when Murray runs around like a crazy person, improvises, and makes something happen—not exactly Kingsbury's credit, there.
Kyler Murray is ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/sddClhy7zW
— 佩洛北奥力给 (@FerdinandBerton) October 1, 2022
There are growing whispers that Kingsbury is hindering Murray more than he's helping him, and that his seat as hot as it can be for a guy who just got an extension this offseason. Maybe that inspires Kingsbury to open up the depths of the playbook and pull something out, but it feels like the Cardinals are going to be reliant on more Murray nonsense the rest of the way, and there's no need to throw him the ball when he can just run around like that.
5. Las Vegas Raiders
The Cardinals and Ravens got dinged for coaching problems; the Raiders get dinged for personnel. Josh McDaniels loves himself a good non-quarterback pass; the Patriots routinely threw the ball with the likes of Jakobi Meyers, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola. He has a bag of tricks, and he's not afraid to use it. But McDaniels biggest strength as a playcaller is adapting to the personnel he has available, tailoring his play calling to the players on his team rather than fitting square pegs into round holes. And the Raiders do not have the pegs for a great quarterback receiving touchdown.
It did look like McDaniels was drawing up a pass for Davante Adams against the Chargers, but that failed quite miserably when Joey Bosa blew everything up; Derek Carr as your lead blocker is not an ideal situation. Nor is Carr as your target—he does, technically, have one reception in his career, but it was a deflected pass back to his own arms for a loss of 9 yards. Considering how this play went, I don't think we're likely to see too many more attempts in 2022 from McDaniels, but keep an eye on the Raiders in the future if they actually get the pieces together for trick plays.
Might be the funniest play of the day: Raiders try getting tricky with a Davante Adams pass, Derek Carr tries blocking Joey Bosa and Bosa gets the sack on Adams! LMAOOOOOO 😂 pic.twitter.com/oyXvFvrxmT
— 𝗙𝗢𝗟𝗟𝗢𝗪 @𝗙𝗧𝗕𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗱𝟳 (@FTBeard7) September 11, 2022
4. San Francisco 49ers
Oh, almost all the pieces are here. You have an offense that, while good, does tend to get bogged down in the red zone and be forced to settle for short field goals. You have players with a history of throwing the ball—Deebo Samuel had two attempts last year, including a touchdown pass against the Rams in a must-win Week 18 game:
— Billy Heyen (@BillyHeyen) February 14, 2022
You have a coach willing and able to put players in weird positions—not just Samuel in the backfield, but putting Trent Williams in motion, lining up Kyle Juszczyk as a wide receiver, experimenting with rotating quarterbacks during the preseason last year. You have multiple players on the roster willing and able to throw passes—not just Samuel, but high school quarterback Jauan Jennings. All the pieces are there…
… and then you realize that all this would be to get the ball in the hands of Jimmy Garoppolo, and everything just evaporates. The 49ers do everything they can to get the ball out of the hands of Jimmy Garoppolo; throwing the ball back to him defeats the entire purpose. Maybe if Trey Lance was still active we could push them higher, but I'm not calling a single dang play that ends up with Jimmy G with the ball in his hands at the end of it.
3. Carolina Panthers
Now we're getting into the realm of possibility, because we're getting to the teams desperate enough to try anything—the truly terrible offenses. The Panthers have the arms—Christian McCaffrey has a touchdown pass and a few more pass attempts in his career; Shi Smith had a number of pass attempts at South Carolina. Heck, get really tricky and sneak P.J. Walker out there on the punt unit with Johnny Hekker, or even just have Hekker play quarterback because things can't get that much worse, can they? Baker Mayfield has a couple of receptions, too, and has found the end zone—a two-point conversion mind you, but the end zone is the end zone.
— Roto Street Journal (@RotoStJournal) September 17, 2020
And since the Panthers are currently ranked 31st on offense, they're clearly not going to beat people with strength or skill—it's guile and trickery that will uncork the Carolina attacke. Now all we need is creativity from Matt Rhule and Ben McAdoo, the brain trust that has turned McCaffrey into a between-the-tackles rusher. Well, desperation is the mother of invention, and with things looking more and more likely that Rhule will be out of a job before December and McAdoo out of one after January, maybe we'll see something, anything resembling an original thought coming from Carolina. The sooner the better.
2. Washington Commanders
What? Carson Wentz as the second-most likely quarterback in this group to catch a touchdown? I must be crazy, you might say. We're talking about a man who once sprained both ankles in one game and has spent more time this season embedded in the turf than scanning the field. Yes, he has two receptions in his career, including a touchdown back in 2018, but that's when he was young and had hope. Those days are long gone now, with Wentz being arguably the worst veteran starter in the league.
Ah, but there is hope on the horizon. I'm not calling for Wentz to be a receiving target; I'm calling for fifth-round quarterback Sam Howell to be a receiving target. At some point, the Commanders are going to have to see what they have on the bench as this is rapidly becoming a lost season, meaning they'll turn to Howell. Howell is a dual-threat quarterback who is probably better with his legs than his arms. He has a pair of touchdown receptions in college at North Carolina to his credit. The man is more dynamic than Wentz is at the moment.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣🎃 (@Steelersdepot) April 3, 2022
In addition, the Commanders have their own non-quarterback weapon: Logan Thomas, drafted as a quarterback in 2014 after being a three-year starter at Virginia Tech. Thomas has been a tight end since 2016, which tells you how well his career as an NFL quarterback went, but he has had a couple completions since then, including one for Washington in 2020. Taysom Hill keeps him from the top spot, but Thomas has to be in the top five for skill position passers around the league.
THE THANKSGIVING TRICKERY CONTINUES! @WashingtonNFL
— NFL (@NFL) November 26, 2020
The thing holding the Commanders back from No. 1 is Ron Rivera and Scott Turner. Rivera's riverboat reputation has hit rocky shores in the past few years, and Turner's offense seems to not know what an adjustment is; we have yet to see the kind of creativity there you'd like to see if we're rating trick-play probabilities. What we need is a team with all the pieces in place and a coach willing to make interesting calls on a regular basis.
1. New York Giants
Brian Daboll is the only active coach to have called multiple quarterback receiving touchdowns, having dialed up Josh Allen's number once in the 2019 playoffs and once in the 2020 regular season. He has also shown a willingness to call these sorts of plays from different places on the field; it's not just Philly Special-esque goal-line calls.
— 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐍𝐞𝐰𝐬 (@sportingnews) January 4, 2020
There's enough Daboll quarterback target history to actually have a stat line—he's 5-for-7 for 68 yards and pair of touchdowns when dialing up passes to his quarterbacks, with all five completions going for a first down. And he was on staff with Josh McDaniels in New England from 2013 to 2016, watching all those pass attempts from Edelman and Amendola. If there's any coach in the league who's going to be comfortable taking the ball out of his quarterback's hands to pass, it's going to be Daboll.
He's got options to throw it, as well. We have already seen Saquon Barkley as his emergency Wildcat passer; Barkley was 2-for-2 with a touchdown at Penn State. Receiver David Sills was recruited as a quarterback out of high school, splitting time between quarterback and receiver at West Virginia. Kadarius Toney was the starting quarterback at his high school and had three pass attempts last year. All three could conceivably be on the field on any normal play; plenty of different formations to draw up quarterback targets from.
And, most importantly, the Giants are not good offensively, at least not at throwing the ball. They're 19th in passing DVOA and 16th in overall offense—just good enough to keep the ball moving and give them chances at the goal line, but just bad enough that Daboll might be tempted to get creative to try to move the ball against defenses loading the box to stop Barkley. The Giants have gotten to 3-1 in part because of Daboll's bold (and perhaps overly bold) play calling; it's the perfect storm for a quarterback reception.
In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and call my shot. While it won't happen this week due to injuries, I'm predicting that not only are the Giants the most likely team to throw their first quarterback receiving touchdown this season, it's also going to happen. By the end of the year, we will have a highlight of Daniel Jones celebrating in the end zone on a little New York special, with the Giants becoming the 25th team to fill out their QB TD sheet. You heard it here first.