Running Quarterbacks and Longevity: Can Kaepernick, Wilson, and Griffin III Stay Healthy Over Time?

By Jason Lisk

Last season was the year of the young, mobile quarterback. Robert Griffin III won Offensive Rookie of the Year, Russell Wilson was a sensation in Seattle, and Colin Kaepernick took over in San Francisco and almost won a Super Bowl ring. Add in Cam Newton in his second year, and these four players ranked in the top six in yards per attempt in 2012.

Scott Kacsmar has a nice breakdown of the three quarterbacks and their run distributions, including how many came on designed runs. As the season went on, the pistol formation and read option became more prominent, and defenses had a difficult time stopping these offenses.

The question, though, remains. How long can these players experience success while using their rushing ability to open up the passing game (and vice versa)? The three of them, plus Newton, all averaged more rush attempts than any young quarterback this side of Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham. Neither of those players avoided injuries as they entered their mid to late twenties, and another high rush attempt quarterback, Daunte Culpepper, tore up his knee at age 28 and never recovered.

A few years ago, I wrote about Ben Roethlisberger and quarterbacks with the highest sack totals, and how long they continued to play. Of those good young quarterbacks that took the most sacks, they were retired about four years earlier than their low sack counterparts.

When we look at rush attempts per start, we see that the runners do miss more games between ages 27 and 30. Fifty-seven quarterbacks are at least 30 years old, and had more than 800 pass attempts by age 26. Sorting by rush attempts per start, you get the following from ages 27-30:

Low Rush Attempt Group: 41.2 Games Started, ages 27-30

High Rush Attempt Group: 35.9 Games Started, ages 27-30

Of course, we may have quality issues, as the pocket passers may have been better overall. One thing we can do is a pairs comparison. Here are pairs of quarterbacks through age 26, based on having similar Adjusted Yards per Attempt. This measure doesn’t include sacks and rushing numbers. Then, we can find pairs where one quarterback was hit at least two times fewer per game, as measured by combined sacks and rushes.

Some of those pairs aren’t equal, even though they had similar passing numbers and starts at a young age. Drew Brees was better than Jeff Blake, but we can counter that with Leftwich vs. McNair. Dan Fouts and Dave Brown is another example of a pairing that seems odd.

Kick those out, as well as some cases like Doug Williams (USFL, race issues thirty years ago) vs. David Carr, and I still count ten cases where both members of the pair generally continued to start, except for injury, or had the same career path. The low hit guys played more games in seven cases, with the other three being similar.

One of the things the teams opting for these exciting offenses have to account is the risk of injury. This isn’t exactly a news flash, but it will be interesting to see how teams handle going forward. One of the offshoots of the new rookie cap is that teams can get cheap, valuable quarterback play if they are willing to view quarterbacks more like running backs, and not concern themselves with longevity. We’ve already seen the Redskins put Robert Griffin III at risk to get to the playoffs and try to advance. History would say you aren’t likely to last long if you take more hits early, but teams may be willing to go that route if it means having a top five offense now.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]