The team’s top two offensive players in 2012 were left tackle Jared Veldheer and quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer is now in Arizona, while Veldheer is out indefinitely with a torn triceps. Brandon Myers (Giants) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (Colts) are also gone, and they combined for 29 starts last season. The big free agent signings were S Charles Woodson (Green Bay), LB Kevin Burnett (Miami), QB Matt Flynn (Seattle), CB Mike Jenkins (Dallas), CB Tracy Porter (Denver).
As a result, there’s little optimism in Oakland entering the season. The Raiders are one of the favorites to land the first pick in the 2014 draft, so the 2013 season will likely be used to see what building blocks actually exist in Oakland. After Terrelle Pryor outplayed Flynn in the preseason, many now think the Raiders going to start Pryor in week 1 because, well, why not? If that’s the case, we’ll have another example to test out a theory that’s widely-accepted by conventional analysts.
Most believe that running quarterbacks provide a boost to ther running backs; that effect appears to be magnified when you introduce elements like the read-option offense and the Pistol formation. Last year, Alfred Morris went from unheralded sixth round pick to 1600-yard rusher; much of the credit goes to Morris, but the Shanaclan and Robert Griffin III made life easier for Morris, too. Conceptually, it’s hard to argue with this philosophy, but isolated examples never prove much. Consider that in San Francisco last season, Frank Gore averaged 5.51 yards per carry in the first eight games of the season (with a healthy Alex Smith) and then just 4.31 YPC ten games he that Colin Kaepernick started.
Today, I want to take a step back and see if there are any general trends when a mobile quarterback replaces (or is replaced by) a non-mobile quarterback. The first question is how to define a mobile quarterback, and there’s no correct answer. One way that seems to make sense to me is to take a quarterback’s rushing yards and divide it by his number of pass attempts. The results seemed pretty good to me, and there are 53 quarterbacks who (1) had at least 200 pass attempts in a season since 1990, and (2) averaged at least 0.90 rushing yards per pass attempt, which was a good cut-off after scanning the results. If we limit it to just quarterbacks who started 5 games or missed at least 5 games, that drops the number to twenty-one names. I’m going to remove Jim Harbaugh (1994) and Rob Johnson (2000, 2001), who otherwise would qualify. Neither player was really a running quarterback, and in Johnson’s case, he was splitting time with a more mobile quarterback in Doug Flutie.
That leaves 18 examples. For each team, I recorded the rushing numbers produced by the top running back. Then, I noted the top quarterback (as measured by pass attempts) in each game, and whether he was a mobile or non-mobile quarterback. The table below shows a lot of data, so let me walk you through the first line. In 2012, Gore was the top running back for the 49ers. The non-mobile quarterback to play the most games was Smith (of course, Smith played in all 8 games, but for all teams, I only listed the top non-mobile QB), and in those eight games, Gore produced a stat line of 119-656-4. He averaged 5.51 YPC and averaged 82 rushing yards per game. In 2012, Gore also played with a mobile quarterback — Kaepernick. He played in 11 games (including playoffs), and produced 877 yards and 8 touchdowns on 202 carries. That means he averaged just 4.34 YPC in those 11 games, and averaged 79.7 rushing yards per game in those 11 games.
In 2009, Chris Johnson rushed for over 2,000 yards, but he was even better once Vince Young replaced Kerry Collins at quarterback. That season, CJ2K averaged 102 rushing yards per game with Collins but 144 yards per game with Young. Since then, this has been a frequently-cited example of why it helps your running back to have a mobile quarterback.
But there are nearly as many examples going the other way, including Johnson performing better last year with a stationary Matt Hasselbeck versus a mobile Jake Locker. Seven of the eighteen running backs averaged more rushing yards per game playing alongside the stationary quarterback, while half of the sample fared better in yards per carry. The sample size is not very large, so we should always remember that sometimes, splits happen. Each situation is unique, of course, which is why I’ve presented the full list so you can add in your thoughts. Intuitively, it certainly makes sense that a rushing quarterback would help his running back, but the results hardly confirm that proposition. And this counter-intuitive result jives with Doug’s unexpected findings when he examined Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, and T.J. Duckett a few years ago.
On the other hand, back in 2006, Football Outsiders found some evidence in favor of conventional wisdom using a different methodology.
To find out if the numbers support this theory, we put together a list of quarterbacks since 1978 who rushed for over 300 yards, then either left the team or lost at least eight games to injury. We added in one more quarterback who had 290 yards in half a season (Kordell Stewart in Chicago, 2003) and took out quarterbacks who were replaced by other running quarterbacks (for example, Steve Young replaced by Jeff Garcia).
The resulting list had 16 teams. 14 of those teams got fewer yards per carry from their running backs in the year where the running quarterback was either injured or gone. The average drop was .46 yards per carry.
Aaron Schatz noted that one of the outliers was Vick’s Falcons teams, and that the effect wasn’t as strong in the other direction (when teams switched from non-mobile to mobile quarterbacks).
Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams