Column: The Demise of the Immobile Quarterback
By Clay Andrews '13, Staff Writer
For just under the last decade, pro football has been dominated by a pivotal debate - Brady or Manning? Pundits have tirelessly promoted both signal-callers, admiring the vision, accuracy and intelligence of both outstanding quarterbacks, and at times proclaiming them unstoppable, unscheme-able. They have the accolades to warrant the acclaim too, including four Super Bowl wins, three Super Bowl MVP’s and six NFL MVP awards between the two of them, pending Brady’s sure-thing MVP for this season come this Super Bowl Sunday (I accept all karmic backlashes from the premature calling of this year’s MVP, but come on, Brady’s got it in the bag). All this is impressive, but what if those “Brady or Manning” days are a thing of the past? What if both Brady and Manning lack an essential ingredient needed to thrive in the NFL of the future?

The NFL is a “copycat” league, meaning once one team has success doing something you can bet the farm that the rest of the league figures it out and either implements it too or works fervently to find a means of stopping it. No-huddle offenses, wildcat formations, and zone blitz schemes have spread like wildfire in this “copycat” league over the years, as no team wants to be left behind the times. Under this precedent, it only takes one coach figuring out an effective strategy for the entire league to adapt it. Rex Ryan of the Jets was that coach this postseason, revealing the much-sought-after blueprint for beating Brady and Manning.

Whether you appreciate Ryan’s pre-game bravado or not (I can’t stand the man, myself), he did develop a defense that left Manning, and then Brady, flabbergasted. Straying from the blitz-happy Ryan family defense, Rex threw a carefully constructed package of pressing shutdown corners and roaming linebackers and safeties at both of the NFL’s poster children, leaving them searching the field to no avail. With no pass rush needed, the stifling coverage gave time for a three-man rush to eventually work its way to the two iconic signal callers. Sure, Ryan still dialed up some of his patented “where’s-it-coming-from” pressure, but not with the frequency we are used to seeing, and it was the shutdown coverage that allowed the defense to dominate. Manning managed one touchdown and Brady mustered two, although one of those came after the game was already out of reach. The Jets defensive tactic was toughest in obvious passing situations as the Colts and the Patriots combined to squander 16 third down attempts. The strategy lived up to Ryan’s self-imposed hype, throwing a lifeline to the entire league, especially the members of the AFC East and South whose previous existences were made miserable by regular butt-kickings from the Pats and the Colts. However, almost as soon as the Goliath-slaying scheme was conceived, its kryptonite was discovered.

How many times did Roethlisberger scan the field against the Jets in the AFC Championship, calmly processing the shutdown coverage, then tucking it down and running for the first down or touchdown? Four times. Three on third down. Not to mention every play that Roethlisberger kept alive with his feet until a receiver got free downfield. The Brady’s and the Manning’s can’t do that. Roethlisberger had a pretty poor game throwing the ball and he wasn’t called on to do so very much (10 of 19 for 133 yards and two interceptions), and admittedly, Pittsburgh’s running back Rashard Mendenhall had an outstanding showing and the Steelers defense made an in-over-his-head Sanchez look silly in the first half. But it was Big Ben who came up with big plays when the pressure was on, using his legs to deliver the win. The Ryan defense that knocked the two best quarterbacking arms out of the playoffs couldn’t account for Roethlisberger’s feet.

The Brady’s and Manning’s of the league are like fat power hitters in baseball — all beefed up to pop homers, but a liability on the base paths should the ball fail to leave the park. Sluggish quarterbacks are a liability if nobody gets open. You find yourself thinking: How can a guy as fleet-of-foot as my grandma be a star in a league of freakishly strong and fast athletes? To this point those guys have found a way, but with every team in the league dissecting Rex Ryan’s big blanket D, who knows how the syrup-steppers will fare in the future.

I can guarantee you that at least this year, the year of the mobile quarterback, a team quarterbacked by a guy who can run for the first down or “extend the play” will be Super Bowl champions. No matter which grizzly man you are supporting on Sunday, you can be sure that both will be looking to scramble when the play breaks down, the extra weapon that both have relied on all year. Roethlisberger and Rodgers have the potential to combine the pocket-passing skills and smarts of the Bradys and the Mannings with a natural toughness and athleticism to surpass the success of those frozen-footed wonders. Vick’s resurgence, Newton’s Heisman and Andrew Luck’s potential as the most-hyped first-round draft pick of all time point to the same trend: mobility is on the move, and taking the league swiftly. If a dual threat quarterback can master the balance of run and pass in this league, he could emerge as the unstoppable, unscheme-able offensive juggernaut the NFL thought it had in Brady or Manning.

Still, maybe the Jets lucked out these playoffs, and just got back-to-back down games from two of the best quarterbacks to play the game. Maybe Rex’s scheme will prove impossible to reproduce or beatable when not by surprise. Maybe this year will prove to be an anomaly, and mobility will remain in the shadows as a luxury rather than a necessity. For now, if I were a “copycat” NFL team executive looking for a quarterback for the future, it would be hard not to put a premium on quickness.

Issue 13, Submitted 2011-02-03 08:59:56