The Running Quarterback’s Conundrum

Quarterbacks with enough athletic ability are often some of the most fun to watch. Whether it be college or NFL-level play, “mobile” QBs are able to make plays with their feet and arms, which is exciting for fans, and allows teams to do plenty more than they could with a “regular” passer. This is a relatively new dimension of the game that can be taken advantage of now, and it makes the game better in all cases.

Many people look at the stats of these running quarterbacks and are surprised at what they see. The numbers seem to bare a stark difference in terms of completion percentages, which is regarded as an important stat for QBs. Cam Newton, considered one of the better “running QBs” of this generation of passers, had a frightening 52.9% completion rate. This didn’t give a great look to this group of players, but there may be a reason behind it.

Recently, Derrik Klassen, a former colleague (RIP QB Mecca) and all-around knowledgeable person, posed a question on Twitter.

This question seems to provide a logical answer to the reasoning for such low completion percentages. But we don’t know that is exactly what happens. So let’s look at the data and find out.

We can take a select group of 5 “running” quarterbacks. Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Mike Vick, Marcus Mariota, and Tyrod Taylor. Let’s consider their run/pass ratio, attempts and yards in a season, and then their passing stats in seasons in which they threw at least 200 passes. Then we can compare to a group of “average” quarterbacks, say, Kirk Cousins, Matt Stafford, Derek Carr, Sam Bradford, and Philip Rivers. Look at the tables below to see how they match up.



The league average completion percentage for QBs with at least 200 attempts is 63.33%. Completion averages highlighted in red are below that mark.

There is some interesting data to be found here. Running quarterbacks average 100-200 less passing attempts than their peers, while averaging 40-50 more rushing attempts. The pass/run ratios for running quarterbacks is significantly low, with an average around 5.1/1, where a regular quarterback’s hovers around 19.5/1. Running quarterbacks clearly recorded below-average completion percentage numbers, but so did 3 of the 5 regular quarterbacks (who are considered in the top half of the league by most). The yards per attempt numbers are relatively similar, but the yards per completion is very different. Only one running quarterback averaged less than 12 yards per completion, and he (Tyrod Taylor) missed it by .1 yard. On the other hand, just two regular quarterbacks recorded over an average of 12 yards per completion.

This would generally mean that while running quarterbacks are throwing less, they are getting more yards for each time they throw the ball. You could conclude that this means they are throwing less checkdowns than their peers, and instead running the ball. These running quarterbacks are averaging 5 rushes for 33 yards a game, or 6.4 yards per rush. That’s about 2-3 yards more per carry than a running back would get. You could infer that a quarterback running the ball instead of throwing a checkdown will get them more yards, and it will also hurt the defense in that they have to worry about the quarterback running instead of just the passing game and the running backs.

All in all, it’s possible that running quarterbacks are better for an offense, even with the decrease in completion percentage. It makes the offense more multi-dimensional, and with a smart offensive coordinator, it can be lethal. Rushing is an important part of the game, and when your passer can do it, it’s that much better.


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