Clockwise: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images; Zach Bolinger/Icon SMI; Jim Dedmon/Icon SMI; Jeff Lewis/Icon SMI; Norm Hall/Getty Images
Clockwise: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images; Zach Bolinger/Icon SMI; Jim Dedmon/Icon SMI; Jeff Lewis/Icon SMI; Norm Hall/Getty Images

NFL’s Best Running Quarterback? The Answer May Surprise You

Athletic QBs add a new dimension to offenses, but often the decision to scramble comes at the expense of the passing game. Hours of film study show how Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III rate as decision-makers—and difference-makers—with their legs

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

Two weeks ago I spent some time at NFL Films, a mecca for any football nerd. They have an incredible system for all their footage and audio, called Saber. Using Saber you can, among other things, view and sort All-22 coaches film by almost any factor imaginable. Want to see every Peyton Manning pass on 2nd-and-8 since 2005? You can! How about every Patrick Willis third-quarter tackle? Of course! Or every incompletion targeted for Darrius Heyward-Bey? You bet! (If you have a month to spend, anyway.)

I took the opportunity to break down every run by Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck from the 2013 regular season. Each player, save for Luck, had about 100 rushing attempts. After watching them all in a row, you start to notice patterns. I charted those patterns, focusing on (a) how successful each player’s scrambles and designed runs were, and (b) whether the scrambles stemmed from good or bad decisions.

So often, running quarterbacks run because they can’t recognize where to throw. I’m not talking about receivers being covered or the defense befuddling a passer; I’m talking about a QB dropping back and failing to execute within the structure of a well-designed play. Sacks often stem from this, too, which is why I also charted them in a separate study.

Football is not baseball; no statistical formula can portray exactly what is happening on the field. I would have loved to include incomplete passes in my study because, like scrambles and sacks, they often stem from undeveloped decision-making and unrefined fundamentals. Unfortunately, with only five days available at NFL Films, and only 12 hours available in each of those days, there was not enough time to view every incompletion.

Nevertheless, the running plays and sacks revealed plenty. The conclusions: Newton, Wilson and Kaepernick are insanely talented athletes, Griffin was not himself last year and Luck is a comparable athlete to all of them and an overwhelmingly better quarterback.

Here are the specifics…

Sacks

Player Sacks Taken QB at Fault Pct. QB at Fault
Andrew Luck 36 0 0.0%
Cam Newton 47 9 19.1%
Colin Kaepernick 37 8 21.6%
Robert Griffin III 38 10 26.3%
Russell Wilson 48 15 31.3%
 

That’s right: Luck was not the primary culpable offender for a single sack he took. The extremity of that statistic—ZERO!—is surprising, but the gist of it is not. Quarterbacks who keep their eyes downfield and move in the pocket with near-perfect mechanics don’t create their own sacks.

How other quarterback sacks were faulted:

Player Sacks Coverage Sack Blockers Protection Concept Quarterback Garbage
Andrew Luck 36 12 (33.3%) 13 (36.1%) 11 (30.6%) 0 0
Cam Newton 47 17 (36.2%) 11 (23.4%) 9 (19.1%) 9 (19.1%) 1 (2.1%)
Colin Kaepernick 39 12 (30.8%) 7 (17.9%) 10 (25.6%) 8 (21.6%) 0
Robert Griffin III 38 9 (23.7%) 9 (23.7%) 10 (26.3%) 10 (26.3%) 0
Russell Wilson 48 8 (16.7%) 18 (37.5%) 7 (14.6%) 15 (31.3%) 0
 

A note on Wilson: All but one of the sacks that were a blocker’s fault came against a simple four-man rush.

Also worth noting: Some of the “protection concept” sacks—and, to a lesser degree, some of the coverage sacks—could be on the quarterback, depending on what his play-calling and protection-setting responsibilities are. But without being in the team meetings, we have no way of knowing that.

Scrambling

A “correct decision” scramble was any scramble caused by pressure or no receivers getting open. An “incorrect decision” scramble was when the quarterback blatantly abandoned a play design that worked. A “successful” scramble was something like, say, a first-down run that gained four-plus yards, or a third-down run that moved the chains.

Player Scrambles Good Decision Pct. Good Decision Successful Pct. Successful
Andrew Luck 44 39 88.6% 33 75.0%
Colin Kaepernick 55 41 74.5% 34 61.8%
Russell Wilson 55 40 72.7% 33 60.0%
Robert Griffin III 34 22 64.7% 16 47.1%
Cam Newton 41 25 61.0% 30 73.2%
 

Just as with sacks, Luck graded out the best.

Some other highlights:

  • Newton moved the chains 17 times by scrambling on third down (21 attempts). And he was 8-for-8 on QB sneaks.
  • Wilson was 4-for-15 moving the chains when scrambling on third down, and just 1-for-6 on QB sneaks.
  • 18 of Wilson’s “rushing attempts” for the season were QB kneel-downs. Take those out and his yards per run goes from 5.6 to 7.1.
  • Also, 18 of Luck’s “rushing attempts” were kneel-downs. Take those out and his yards per run goes from 6.0 to 8.8. (Luck, however, attempted just 45 runs to Wilson’s 78.)
  • Of Newton’s 16 “incorrect decision” scrambles, 13 still produced a successful outcome. In fact, several of his longest runs on the year came off incorrect decisions.
  • Kaepernick was clearly the most dangerous scrambler in terms of speed and agility, though only 9 of his 22 third-down scrambles were successful.
  • Griffin had the worst scrambling numbers, but he had (by a narrow margin) the best success rate on designed runs.

Designed Runs

Here’s the breakdown on success of designed runs:


Player

Designed Runs

Successful
Pct. Success on
Designed Runs
Robert Griffin III 42 25 59.5%
Cam Newton 59 33 55.9%
Russell Wilson 27 14 51.8%
Colin Kaepernick 37 19 51.3%
Andrew Luck 2 0 0.0%
 

Unquantifiable things that stood out:

    • Newton is clearly a half-field reader. He also did not slide at all, though he managed to avoid any big hits. He gives himself up in the name of safety; his style is just to fall forward and essentially tackle himself.
    • Wilson is another half-field reader, though his scrambles are, by indirect design, a major facet of Seattle’s offense. Seahawks coaches seem to instruct Wilson to run early in the down if that’s what he’s comfortable with. That changed the definition of some of his correct/incorrect scrambles.
    • Kaepernick does not read the defense before the snap. You can tell because he shows no understanding of this basic quarterbacking concept: When one receiver is covered, it often means another receiver is not. There’s no awareness of route combinations.
    • Griffin takes far too many punishing hits, especially at the end of runs in mildly critical situations (like, say, a 3rd-and-6 early in the first half). He’s been taught to protect himself, but the execution is not natural.
    • Luck was impressive even on a lot of negative plays. He always tried to keep plays alive, running extremely late in the down and rarely compromising his physical readiness to throw.

The takeaway: About one out of four times, a young running quarterback will make a poor decision to scramble or do something to get himself sacked. That is, unless he’s Andrew Luck, who is basically a 10-year veteran in his approach to running with the ball (and treated as such; notice the Colts did not jeopardize his safety with designed run calls). In terms of efficiency, which is crucial to quarterbacking, Luck was clearly the best of this bunch—and that’s just in the running department. Based on what his decision-making revealed in this instance, my guess is he’d be even further ahead of Griffin, Kaepernick, Newton and Wilson if we conducted a passing-game analysis. Right now, these running quarterbacks are dominant athletes—which can be enough if they have a strong supporting cast. But with a 15-percentage-point jump in their decision-making proficiency, they’d become dominant quarterbacks.

mmqb-end-slug-square

165 comments
jjwitty
jjwitty

Hilarious how these hacks on here think they know more than an SI columnist.

Also funny how fiercely the OTHER QBs are defended. We all know LUCK is #1, the rest fall in line somewhere behind.

hotcheese
hotcheese

Probably one of the worst articles I have read on MMQB.

loaded_question
loaded_question

Both Kap and Wilson r unimpressive. Their teams put these two on the map. Newton took it upon himself to become the leader of his team. RG simply has too much talent for a squad that relies on the PR to spin his difficulties. If he wasn't thrust onto the public he'd be better off. I'm not sure about Luck. he seems to get away with things that may catch up with him as his experience doesn't lead to more progress while the defense catches up. More and more the QB is less responsible for his team winning. 

AKMessiah
AKMessiah

Way to find some way to make Luck look even better than he is, let's compare post season stats for these guys eh?  Bet that article would show he isn't so great.

AKMessiah
AKMessiah

I find it hard to believe Luck was at fault for ZERO sacks

Dirty-Bird
Dirty-Bird

I am drawn to MMQB because there seems to be a no nonsense, unique and informative slant to most of the content. This one missed the mark for me though. Seems like poorly constructed, overly opinionated and agenda driven clickbait. 

ChrisDeck
ChrisDeck

Andrew Luck being one of the best of this bunch isn't much of a surprise. I do wonder how he would relate to Aaron Rodgers who is very similar in how he approaches the game (and if my perception is correct, is fairly similar in terms of his success in running the ball when required).

RadioMetrixNews
RadioMetrixNews

No surprise to us.  We already knew it.  But because he is white no one is going to label him as a double threat. 

On the other side because he isn't black he's not a running QB. 

Buck2185
Buck2185

Lets go with another twist - the worst running QB in the league - Hands down , Little girl Tom Brady - this little girl is afraid of himself much less a defensive player. Note- going to the ground before any one touches him, going to the ground 1 yd shy of a first down in a play off game, just watch him. He epitomizes a word associated with a female cat........

RobRachel
RobRachel

Seattle never had their offensive line at 100%  this last year.

Is that not taken into consideration  ?


Realist
Realist

Funny. This column pretends to use statistical analysis, when one of the most critical numbers is a completely subjective thing called "QB's fault". There are plenty of other subjective opinions included.  I happen to think Luck's feet are an underrated part of his game. But anyone who sees Kaepernick, Newton, or a healthy Griffin with the football and a crease knows that these 3 guys are, by far, the best running QB's in the game.

PFF
PFF

This is an entertaining offseason read, and is the kind of micro-analysis that can only exist in the offseason. Here's a telling quote: "Some of the “protection concept” sacks—and, to a lesser degree, some of the coverage sacks—could be on the quarterback, depending on what his play-calling and protection-setting responsibilities are. But without being in the team meetings, we have no way of knowing that". 


Without being in team meetings, huddles, the reads/options of the WR's/TE's/RB's, or the complete design of the play is, we have know way of knowing quite a bit. 


The simple truth that won't get any readers excited: all these guys have a lot of talent, none of them are perfect. It takes a great organization as a whole, along with the players, to reach the ultimate goal - the only one that matters - of winning the Super Bowl. 


The only analysis that matters is which of these young QB's will join RW as SB winners. 



Brian_206
Brian_206

Only one is a Super Bowl champion ;) 

Reasonite
Reasonite

So as I Seahawks fan I can't  comment on any of the other quarterbacks but Wilson.  The thing that makes me question any conclusion of this article is that Benoit doesn't get the basics of the Seahawks offense.  First, he mentions at the end of the article that the Seahawks coaches instruct Wilson to run early in the down.  Completely false.  Darrell Bevell and Wilson consistently talk about how he is not a running QB and whenever he starts moving outside the pocket the goal iis always to continue looking downfield.  Five minutes of googling could show this.  DO they call designed runs sometimes?  Of course.  The guy is a great athlete.  But Wilson is explicitly not a running QB


Second, I also don't understand how he calls Wilson a half field reader when this article is specifically about QBs running the ball.  Is he saying that Wilson, and other half field readers, don't see the open guy on the other half of the field and then run?  I'm sure that does happen sometimes.  But by  Benoit's count Wilson only had 29 scrambles this season that were not designed runs.  How someone thinks they can come away with a conclusion about any QB by only watching 29 snaps is beyond me.  Why don't you go look at their entire season and then make a conclusion.


Also, this.  "When one receiver is covered it often means another receiver is not."  The second thing does not follow from the first, even with the "often" qualifier.

AnthonyPatterrson
AnthonyPatterrson

The media has decided to anoint a barely 60% passer as an elite. More to come. Imagine if he didn't throw more interceptions than touchdowns in the playoffs.


"Each player, save for Luck, had about 100 rushing attempts."


So why compare these QBs? Why not compare Luck to QBs with significantly less than 100 attempts? Luck(63) didn't come anywhere near the 111(Newton)  96 (Wilson) (92 Kaep)  (86 RGIII) had.


Thats right, agenda. 


Why isn't Nick Foles on this list, who had 6 less rushes than Luck (57-63) and stats more closely resemble Luck in this regard? Why are only "these" Qbs being chosen despite having many more attempts?


Thats right, agenda.


"Luck was impressive even on a lot of negative plays. He always tried to keep plays alive, running extremely late in the down and rarely compromising his physical readiness to throw."


Purely subjective, only serves to hype Luck again.


"Unquantifiable things that stood out"


nuff said.

Bric
Bric

Good article, and I especially appreciate that you noted that fans and writers are not included in team meetings, and therefore, do not always know who was at fault in a failed play.

When a QB releases the ball towards a WR who has not yet cut, a perfect pass can wind up 15 yards away from the intended target and in the hands of a safety if the WR turns the wrong way.

We, at home, have no way of knowing if the WR reacted wrongly, or the QB misread the play.

Analysts and announcers on TV frequently fail to explain that fact.

MatthewHall
MatthewHall

Has there ever been a more subjective MMQB than this, fake equations to once again promote Luck when he doesn't deserve it. 

chazatlas
chazatlas

Andrew Luck benefits incredibly from constant cupcake schedules and playing in the worst division (AFC-South) in the NFL. You don't need to wish Indy luck when they constantly play the likes of the Titans, Jags and Browns.

JimCody
JimCody

Good to see someone demonstrate how overrated RW is

mojofixer
mojofixer

Great article, Andy. Interesting to learn the warts of these star QBs.


Luck's only existing flaw, it seems, is that ugly blue mouthpiece.

glengarryblake
glengarryblake

Interesting analysis, if a bit (lots) open to play-review interpretation.  So Luck is better than the other guys - not surprising since he is.  And since he's better than just about every other QB, too.  


Uh-oh, just noticed the other guys are all black.  That makes this is a racist column since it suggests that a white guy might be better at something than a black guy (guys).  Such thoughts must be squelched!  Prepare for the inevitable boycott of Sports Illustrated, the NFL and anything sold by the (evil) Redskins.


Then rewrite the column comparing only black QBs to black QBs and whites to whites.  Wait, that's racist too - oh nevermind, better not to have an opinion on anything in 2014...

Devilsreject97
Devilsreject97

@AKMessiah I don't see how. His offensive line was abysmal and more often than not his sacks were because people couldn't block properly. 

MadDoser
MadDoser

@Buck2185 He isn't a running QB you moron.  He is very good at reading defences and passing the ball so he doesnt need to run.

Hawksman12
Hawksman12

@Buck2185 Nobody seems to care about the details surrounding all this minutia may call statistics. Of course, they didn't take into consideration the fact that for 10 games in the 2013 season, Russell Wilson played without Russell Okung, Breno Giacomini, Max Unger, 3 games without Zach Miller, and a left guard position that featured rookies; Alvin Bailey, Michael Bowie, also Paul McQuiston, and James Carpenter. He also played with the right guard, JR Sweezy, who is a converted defensive  tackle. If Russell Wilson wasn't the quarterback  of the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, the offense would have surrendered over 60 quarterback sacks. Statistics are for morons, all you have to do is change a few variables and you can find any result that you would like to support your assertion. Gosh,  these guys annoy me.

JermaineLee
JermaineLee

@RobRachel Indy's line was worst and only saw both tackles play all 16 games. So to answer your ques no excuses for wilson, the tape doesn't lie, in fact Luck (except for 2013 redskins) has been on the worst team (overall talent wise since 2012) and had to carry his team through rough patches both years something only cam shared in common with luck the 2012 season. Both Kap and Wilson have been on stacked teams since they became starters.

JPSmall
JPSmall

@Realist You nailed it. It's a stat-driven article made up of subjective numbers. Anyway, he does make one excellent point in the article: Football is NOT baseball. The micro-stats that stat nerds try to employ actually don't help to determine anything in football because of the nature of the game. There are 50-70 snaps per game, all on different parts of the field, with different fatigue levels, perceived importance, injury levels, defensive play calls, personal positive/negative energy correlations, and a bunch of other stuff I can't think of off the top of my head, all before you even take into account whether the play call was appropriate for down and distance. 


It's reductive to lay blame or praise based on what you think when you don't have the numbers, and I really despise that. The game is all that matters, and too often nowadays the media think that identifying some magical stat will prove their biases right, but it does the opposite. 


Who cares about people with loud voices predicting outcomes??


The GAME IS ALL THAT MATTERS!!!

72bird101
72bird101

With that D Christian Ponder could have won a SB

Hawksman12
Hawksman12

@Reasonite Russell Wilson is a reluctant running quarterback. He would much rather get the ball into Marshawn Lynch is hands or Percy Harvin or any of a number of players designed to take the football down field. He is a  pass throwing quarterback that sometimes runs, not a running quarterback that sometimes throws like many of the other quarterbacks mentioned in this study. I really like Andrew  Luck and, if you pressed me for honesty, Luck might be the only quarterback in the NFL that I would trade Russell Wilson for. However, now that Wilson has been in the Seattle community for 2 years, this town has adopted him and probably wouldn't think of trading him for anyone else. And his age, you wouldn't make a trade for an Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or any other quarterback.

PFF
PFF

@Reasonite Yeah, I wonder where he gets the inside information of what the coaches are telling Wilson to do on passing plays. A very casual comment in the article, but when you think about it, why would anyone tell outsiders how they're going to run their plays. It also doesn't make sense. Anytime I saw RW, many of his big plays were on breakdowns, where he did everything he could to extend his time looking for an open receiver. He was running around to avoid defenders, but still looking for the open receiver. Mind you, I'm a 49ers fan who wants the Seahawks to go 0-16 next year, but you raise a good point. 

willmenser
willmenser

@AnthonyPatterrson The difference is, Luck actually throws the ball the majority of the time. Running the ball is Luck's "escape plan" in case all else fails. Plus you talk about passing percentage? Luck's best WR was a third round draft pick in the 2012 draft, and he's a passing QB. For the Seahawks, their main source of offense is running. Wilson only throws the ball if someone is open, Luck on the other hand gets the ball to his receivers, and a lot of times they drop it. Take Darrius Hayward-Bey for instance, he almost always drops the ball, so you can't call Luck a bad QB because he has young receivers. Plus, I think I'd have a great passing percentage if I almost never threw the ball.

AustinLeonard
AustinLeonard

@chazatlas yet the man beat the 9ers,hawks,broncos,and a good defense in the chiefs twice.Their offense was horrible but texans still ranked in top 10 defense with titans not too far behind.He plays against defenses not his fault the other teams cant put up points.

AnthonyPatterrson
AnthonyPatterrson

@mojofixer yeah, a career 60.2 completion percentage in this era isn't a flaw, more interceptions than TDs in the postseason not a flaw. Several games of no offense until the late 3rd/ 4th quarter surely not a flaw. Crown him.

joshlewis535
joshlewis535

Costanza and cherilus were the only full time starters on the colts line.

Their 3rd string rb was starting (dont start with t rich, thats not on luck), while seattle had a top 5 rb.

Reggie wayne missed 9 games, dennis allen missed most of the season.

Statistics are facts, so good job using facts and discrediting stats.

Somebody look up average 3rd down distance, percentage of 3rd down attempts while leading, yards per carry by backs and receivers, time of possession per possession, run/pass ratio, turnover diffrrence, average starting field position, defensive and special teams tds and probably 30 other stats

A combination of stats and film study is the best way to reach a conclusion. I think lucks better because hes tasked with more, but show me a thorough statistical argument for wilson and I'll reconsider

NickMetcalf81
NickMetcalf81

@JermaineLee @RobRachel Some would argue that the tackle spots are the hardest to cover up.  Even Schlereth says you don't have to be as talented to play guard, and for that, the Seahawks were missing both their tackles for 8 games each, their center for a couple, and the only starter that played all 16 games was a 2nd year converted defensive lineman.... So tell me again how Luck's O-line was more banged up than Seattle's????

Devilsreject97
Devilsreject97

@JPSmall @Realist I think the point here isn't who's the best athlete, but who's the best decision maker when it comes to running the ball as a QB. A lot of young guys rely on their ability to run the ball, and when that goes, turn pretty mediocre. Meanwhile, you almost never see Peyton or Brady run the ball....but when they do....it usually turns into a huge play. 

unitcaptain11
unitcaptain11

@72bird101 Wilson is way more accurate than Ponder, makes better decisions, and he can escape the rush when he needs to.  Ponder would be on his backside every down if he played behind the worst pass blocking offensive line, like Wilson does..

AKMessiah
AKMessiah

@willmenser @AnthonyPatterrson  and the comment that Wilson only throws to guys who are open, I contend that he can throw people open.  Case and point 4th down TD pass to Kearse to take the lead in the NFC championship game into tight coverage, ball where only Kearse could get it.  That's one small example of many I have seen the kid make

AKMessiah
AKMessiah

@willmenser @AnthonyPatterrson  Luck's best receiver was Wanye, and Luck played much worse without him in the lineup.  Wilson's best WR was a 2nd round pick (Tate) after that the WR corps. was made up of undrafted receivers.  So what if the Seahawks run the ball more than 50% of the time, doesn't change the fact that when given a chance Wilson gets the ball where it needs to go, has far less turnovers and more TDs than Luck.  If Indy had a Lynch in their backfield it would be much the same for them, that's called smart football, but it doesn't take anything away from Wilson, just go watch some film, he is every bit the playmaker as Luck.  (Same # of 4th qtr comebacks) and only a few behind in game winning drives.  Both are excellent players and probably the new iteration of manning-brady (hardware vs. stats)

AnthonyPatterrson
AnthonyPatterrson

@AustinLeonard @chazatlas The TEAM beat the 9ers hawks broncos and chiefs. He's barely a 60% passer that threw 7 interceptions vs 6td in 2 playoff games this last season.

23-td 9ints with a 87 rating, 30 points lower than Nick Foles, who played his first year in a new system. great QB.

Avatar42990
Avatar42990

@IanHartless @glengarryblake Conservatives have a right to be angry, I mean after all the left winged socialist regime constantly plays the race card when they want to divide the nation rather than unite it. If you watch CNN, known as the Communist News Network, they play the race card everytime someone disagrees with Obama. Same with the Socialist left wing nut outlets like ABC, NBC, CNBC, Washington Compost, New York Slimes ....etc. Imagine if Bush was in office and traded 5 top dog sub-humans for 1 traitor. Man, the left winged nut media would be up in arms and calling for his impeachment and bringing with it additional charges for the NSA, IRS, Bengazi and the VA Scandals. But no. They all backed and protected our leader because it would be Raaaaaaaaacist to think of doing such a thing.


"Beware of Liberals Posing as Americans"

willmenser
willmenser

@AnthonyPatterrson @AustinLeonard @chazatlas He still won those games! You guys just pull up random facts on wikipedia and throw them at people and say "Look I'm smart." Just because he had a poor passing percentage doesn't mean he's horrible. You guys should actually watch one of his games. He didn't have ANY experienced receivers, tight ends, or running backs and yet he carried the team on his shoulders to win all of those games. You guys are idiots when it comes to sports. It's not all about stats, it's about how you play the game, and Luck plays it well.

AnthonyPatterrson
AnthonyPatterrson

@Avatar42990 @IanHartless @glengarryblake Conservatives, aka white supremacist ideologists, don't need anything to be angry about, its their natural state of being. Look at how they talk "subhuman". Your actions show what "Conservatism" is and most people with sense reject it. Asians and Jews voted overwhelming for Obama, and they are generally more educated and wealthier than your average "Con"servative white. One party looks homogenous, the other reflects the world the rest of us occupy. 


I guess you forgot Ted Nugent when you wrote this crap you don't even believe.


newsflash, reality has a liberal bias. Keep getting your news from ONE source, most people would consider that STUPIDITY, keep it up.  

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