Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and the fallacy of the dual-threat QB
The Ravens-Bills matchup will feature two quarterbacks who are often knocked for their style of play
On Saturday night, when the Buffalo Bills host the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, quarterbacks Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson will put to the test the theory that has followed dual-threat quarterbacks for decades: that they can’t be successful in their pursuit of a championship.
In their first three seasons, Allen and Jackson have gone from severely limited passers, who had to rely too heavily on their ability to run, to dangerous passers … who might still take off running if the defense leaves that option open.
This season, Jackson became the first quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in multiple seasons and just the second quarterback (Colin Kaepernick, 2013) to run for at least 100 yards and a touchdown in a playoff game, which he did against the Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round. He also finished seventh in QBR a year after leading the league in the same category.
Allen finished the season ranked third in QBR after spending time near the bottom of the league the past two seasons. His 46 total touchdowns were the second-most in the NFL this season.
While Jackson and Allen currently rank first (2,906 yards) and fourth (1,562), respectively, all time in rushing yards in a quarterback’s first three seasons, they and other run-capable passers have changed how defenses must cover the position.
There’s no universal standard to be considered a dual-threat quarterback – those who are just as dangerous running the ball as they are throwing it. There are many mobile quarterbacks who have found success in the NFL, those who can move around the pocket and don’t stand still: Brett Favre, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Patrick Mahomes. But you wouldn’t confuse, say, Staubach for the first coming of Michael Vick. Dual-threat quarterbacks are those who are as likely to run the ball as they are to throw it. Think of it this way: If a team doesn’t regularly call designed runs (e.g., run-pass option) for the quarterback, he’s likely not a dual-threat.
But one way would be to look at career rushing yards per game. Of quarterbacks who have averaged at least 20 rushing yards per game in their career, only Steve Young (25.1 yards per game) and Russell Wilson (31.3) have won a Super Bowl. Many other dual-threat quarterbacks have come close, including Steve McNair (22.3), Donovan McNabb (20.7), Kaepernick (33.3), Cam Newton (38.6), Vick (42.7) and Randall Cunningham (30.6). Jackson (63.2) holds the record for rushing yards per game for a quarterback; Allen currently sits in fifth (35.5).
For those quarterbacks who haven’t had success in getting their team a championship in a given season, they’ve normally been hampered by meager accuracy or ability to stretch the field. McNabb, for instance, averaged a completion percentage of 57% and 6.2 yards per attempt his first five seasons in the league. The year he led the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl: 64% and 8.3 yards per attempt.
Quarterbacking purists consider passers who rely heavily on their legs as inferior to pocket passers because of the assumption that dual-threat quarterbacks can’t read defenses or throw accurately, not to mention their propensity for appearing on the injured list. Former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski wrote in his book, The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays, that “Although the Vince Youngs and Vicks of the world pull off amazing plays with their feet, it’s harder for them to win consistently, because they don’t make enough accurate throws from the pocket. … It’s hard for them to execute enough big plays in the passing game to reach a championship level.”
There were legitimate concerns about both Jackson and Allen coming out of college. At Wyoming, Allen completed just 56% of his passes over two seasons and had 15 interceptions his sophomore year, his erratic decision-making being the most glaring concern. Jackson was a Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville, but he too had accuracy (57%) concerns, not to mention scouting reports questioning his wiry (6 feet, 2 inches, 215 pounds) frame holding up in the pros. Both had the same knock on them as all dual-threat quarterbacks: bails from the pocket too quickly and too often.
But after three seasons, those concerns have subsided, for the most part. In his first two seasons, Allen still had the accuracy (56.3%), turnover (21 interceptions) and pocket presence (66 sacks) issues from college. But in 2020, most of those problems have been worked out. He upped his completion percentage over 10 points, from 58.8% in 2019 to 69.2%, just the fourth quarterback in the last 20 years with such an increase over one season. He threw for 37 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, with a career-low 26 sacks taken. Not to mention, with his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame, he’s the hardest quarterback to bring down since Newton.
“Tackling him, you better throw big bodies at him, because he’s a big body,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale. “I told the defense earlier, we need to tackle him like you tackle [Derrick] Henry, because that’s the way he runs.”
Jackson won the MVP award last year after upping his completion percentage to 66.1% (up from 58.2% through seven starts in 2018) in his second season, and accounted for 4,333 yards (1,206 rushing, most all time) and 43 touchdowns (36 passing, most in the NFL); his 83 QBR was the highest in the league. His numbers slipped in 2020, but he still finished with 33 touchdowns (26 passing) and 1,005 rushing yards.
For dual-threat quarterbacks like Jackson, there are also racial undertones to how they are perceived in the NFL. Aside from a Fran Tarkenton, a scrambling trailblazer, or Tim Tebow, running quarterbacks have normally been Black, which opens the door to the stereotypes of Black intellectual inferiority. Thus dual-threat quarterbacks will choose to run, which is easy, over throwing, which is hard.
“Terms like ‘dual-threat,’ instead of suggesting the guy could do two things, not just one, meant he was really a run-first guy who maybe wasn’t quite good enough as a pocket passer to be an NFL-level quarterback,” wrote former NFL coach Brian Billick in his book, The Q Factor: The Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback.
The questions about Jackson were whether he could run a “pro-style” offense in the NFL, shorthand for “more intellectually complicated.”
But in an example Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman gave this week of Jackson reading a Titans coverage, assumptions about a dual-threat quarterback’s ability to understand defenses are outdated.
“On his big touchdown run the other day, the Titans chose to play a coverage we call Cover 7, which is man with doubles, which essentially was able to take away our … deep dig routes, which we’ve hurt them on in the past. They’ve had quite a bit of success with that coverage against us, primarily in the red zone,” Roman said.
“We watched the film and it was pretty obvious they’re going to … play man coverage and do that. ‘Look at what would happen here if you [Jackson] just tucked it and ran.’ And lo and behold, that’s what happened, and Lamar saw it, did it, and then took over from there. That’s a good story about him taking his film study to the field and applying it.”
Another knock against dual-threat quarterbacks has been their connection to spread offenses coming out of college. Spread offenses, which emphasize spacing on the field to open up more throwing or running lanes, had been denigrated by quarterback-needy professional teams for years because the system doesn’t require quarterbacks to make as many reads or difficult throws as they would need to in the NFL. Black college quarterbacks such as Pat White, Geno Smith and Newton all came from those systems, with varying pro results, which added to the criticism of the system. (For reference, neither Allen nor Jackson ran spread offenses in college.)
But in recent years, professional teams have incorporated more spread schemes in their offenses to Super Bowl success, most notably the offenses run by Tom Brady in New England and Mahomes in Kansas City.
“I think it’s somewhat a result of the college systems that we’re seeing,” said Bills head coach Sean McDermott. “More and more of these quarterbacks are mobile coming out of college.
“It’s a continual cat and mouse game, I guess, in terms of developing and having the right roster. Whether it’s regular season or postseason, they’re a handful; these guys are headaches that can do both.”
That mobility also forces receivers to have to adapt to a quarterback who isn’t necessarily dropping five steps back and firing away. It may be more like 15 steps, a twist, a turn and throwing off one foot while throwing across the body.
Bills receiver Stefon Diggs, in his first year in Buffalo after five in Minnesota, said running quarterbacks give a “different feel” than pure pocket passers, but that it’s all about paying attention.
“For me, it’s just you have to be [aware] at all times,” Diggs said. “With a quarterback like Josh, you never know what’s going to happen, because you can see him throw off some big guys and shake a couple of defenders and he can still throw the ball. So you never want to be out there bulls—tin’.”
Dual-threat quarterbacks who are a legitimate threat to hurt you with their arms have altered how defenses game plan. It presents a razor’s edge: worry too much about him running and he can throw it over your head, but worry too much about his throwing and you give him lanes and space to take off.
“It’s definitely the ‘plaster’ element of the game, because once he breaks the pocket he can throw it on the run,” Ravens defensive back Jimmy Smith said, referring to defending a player like Allen. “And he has receivers that can get open, so after that first 2½ seconds, three seconds then, boom, he went through his cover reads, it’s not there and breaks that pocket. That’s something you have to practice a little bit, is just plastering people, making sure that he doesn’t have anywhere to throw it, try to force him to throw it out of bounds.”
On the other sideline, Bills defenders know they have to work as a unit and keep a spy on runners like Jackson unless they want to give up a 50-yard scamper as the Titans did last week.
“When you’ve got a quarterback who can run like Lamar, it’s a different dynamic,” said Bills safety Micah Hyde. “You’ve got to play all 11 guys, and all 11 guys on defense are crucial. You can’t necessarily have two guys sitting 20 yards back, playing Cover 2 the whole game, because you know that there’s really no one to account for the quarterback, who can keep it.”
After Saturday’s game, one of Jackson or Allen will have a playoff record below .500, which will give further credence to those who believe the only way to win in the NFL is to have a quarterback who stands tall (literally) in the pocket. Never mind the fact that a pocket passer like Peyton Manning was winless in his first three postseason games. Regardless, the successes of Allen, Jackson, Wilson and Deshaun Watson over the years signal that, given better defenses, or offensive lines, or positional players, dual-threats could be just as much a threat as those who prefer to never leave the pocket.
“Depends,” Jimmy Smith responded when asked which of runners and pocket passers is easier to defend against. “Peyton Manning, not mobile. Tom Brady, not mobile. Or Jackson, mobile. You pick your poison.
“You can get diced up or you can get ran by. Either way it’s going to be tough.”