How Have Running QBs Like Lamar Jackson Shaped the Game?

How Have Running QBs Like Lamar Jackson Shaped the Game?
Fact Checked by Pat McLoone

It was caught on video.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh is with his quarterback, Lamar Jackson, on the Baltimore bench.  Harbaugh leans in Jackson and says: “You changed the game, man . . . you know how many kids in this country are going to be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback in the next 20 years?”

That was in 2019, during a game against Cincinnati while Jackson was dazzling the NFL during his MVP season.

Unfortunately, Jackson isn’t dazzling any fans at the moment. He suffered a PCL injury to his knee on Dec. 4 and has been out since. Maryland sportsbooks and Ravens fans eagerly anticipate his return, which is expected by the playoffs.

Children and Adults Alike Have Been Influenced

Instead of talking about how Jackson was influencing legions of children, Harbaugh just as easily could have been referring to NFL general managers and player personnel executives who looked at Jackson and saw in the Ravens’ star the model of the 21st century NFL quarterback.

Jackson’s success was very likely at the heart of draft picks that would be made in subsequent years: Jalen Hurts by the Eagles, Trey Lance by the 49ers, Justin Fields by the Bears.  

But it would be inaccurate to contend that Jackson was the prototype for the highly mobile quarterback, although he has elevated the style to an unprecedented level.

Just about 30 years before Jackson’s MVP, Sports Illustrated in 1989 put Eagles QB Randall Cunningham on its cover and anointed him, “The Ultimate Weapon.” Cunningham’s dazzling, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t footwork was the stuff of highlight reels.

About the same time, Steve Young was on the threshold of taking over at quarterback from Joe Montana in San Francisco. Young, like Cunningham, augmented his passing game with a run game. Unlike Cunningham, Young’s bold running style challenged tacklers as much as eluded them.

Cunningham, after leaving Philadelphia and taking a season off from the NFL, adapted to being a pocket passer in Minnesota. At age 35, the player who was a near-balletic ball-carrier, threw for career highs in touchdown passes (35) and yards-per-game (246.9) and reached a personal-best passing rating (106.0).

Young was a hard runner well into his 30s. At 37 and in his 14th NFL campaign, Young ran for 454 yards and six touchdowns.  But the next season, still another concussion early in the year – he reportedly suffered as many as seven in his career – forced Young, a Hall of Famer, out of the game.

These QBs Are Running Targets

As a broadcaster now, Young occasionally frets about quarterbacks who run and their longevity.

He was expansive in discussing 49ers QB Trey Lance, who was designated as this year’s starter until in an early-season game against Seattle, he kept the ball on a so-called run-read and had his ankle badly injured on the tackle. Lance has been out all year.

So, you see the trend. Lance is out, Jackson is out, Hurts is OK. In fact, Maryland sports apps have had to adjust their odds as Hurts at one point had been favorite for NFL MVP.

BetMGM Maryland currently has Hurts at +900, behind Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes (-500) and Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow (+600).

In an interview, Young was quoted concerning Lance.

“Look, it’s football, and running quarterbacks out of the huddle is dangerous,” Young said. “And remember last year (in 2021) when Trey played against the Cardinals, I think (the 49ers) ran him 13 times out of the huddle. I mean, we all kind of, [thought], ‘Really, is that what we’re doing?'”

In his Philadelphia days, Cunningham had set the bar for running quarterbacks with a per-game average of 30.6, according to statmuse.com. Michael Vick raised the bar to 42.7. Cam Newton in the last decade averaged 38 rushing yards per game with Carolina. More recently, Buffalo’s Josh Allen is just over 40 yards a game.

But Baltimore’s Jackson is running off with that statistic with a career average of 63.4 yards per game on the ground.

FanDuel Maryland is counting on a Jackson return, as it has the Ravens as the eighth pick to win the Super Bowl at +2100.

The Buffalo Bills (+350) remain the favorite in Maryland NFL betting.

 
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What Does Future Hold for Jackson?

The question is, how long can Jackson continue to carry his team in this same audacious way?

At the start of Donovan McNabb’s career with the Eagles, he averaged 6.8 yards a carry through four seasons for almost 1,900 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. In McNabb’s heyday, the Eagles went to four NFC championship games and a Super Bowl. However, in the last four seasons of his career, in which he had double-digit starts (three in Philly and one in Washington), McNabb averaged 4.3 yards a carry for a total of 674 yards and four rushing TDs. The obvious statistical lesson is that running the ball is ultimately unsustainable.

And importantly, the lesson that should occur to NFL personnel departments and coaching staffs is that even with the best running quarterbacks, a transition must eventually take place that leads an athletically gifted quarterback from where he is consistently relying on his speed and agility to more conventional quarterbacking practices, which probably involve developing and leaning other skills.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh might have been correct in that Jackson is a player who has changed the game. But there is another undeniable and stark fact -- the game will inevitably change the player.

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A longtime reporter and editor who began writing on casinos and gaming shortly after Atlantic City’s first gambling halls opened, Bill covered the World Series of Poker and wrote a syndicated column on travel to casino destinations for a decade.

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