I can tell you unequivocally that every Quarterback in college and the NFL know who they are as an athlete. They are plugged into their own QB DNA. They know they are either a pass-first or a run-first QB. There are a few who can fake it. For awhile. But, the DNA eventually shows itself. Typically, it is revealed in the heat of the battle when the game is on the line. The Quarterback will default to his strongest instincts. Let’s break down the elements that contribute to the run or pass decision of the QB.
The Drop-Back Technique is Critical to Timing Routes
What is the most fundamental element of the Quarterback passing techniques? The drop-back. Quarterbacks are coached from Pop Warner on how to take the proper drop for maximum effectiveness in the pocket. As a Quarterback, you practice drops that include a three-step, five-step, and seven-step drop. Obviously from the shotgun each depth has a head start, but technique discipline remains the same. You practice drops for hours without even throwing the ball. The ball comes up to your chest, you use the arms to drive your legs back. You keep your head downfield. And when you hit that back foot you plant it like in cement. Over and over and over.
You are trying to streamline the time it takes to get back, get set and deliver the ball. The depth of the drop coincides with the depth of your receivers’ routes. If a Quarterback is not under eminent pressure and his drop technique breaks down before he plants that back foot, or right after, chances are he’s a run-first DNA QB. Or, he just destains technique. But, very few Quarterbacks can execute precision passing consistently without proper footwork and weight transfer. Once you have broken off platform, in this case the pocket, you have to choose fight or flight. Fight for more time or take off for the chains. Pass-first QBs depend on drop-back technique to cash their paychecks.
Time to Throw (TT)
In the NFL the optimum release time range from the snap to when the ball leaves the hand is 3.0 seconds or less. The target release time or “Time to Throw” (TT) is 2.7 seconds. In 2022 at age 45 Tom Brady led all NFL QBs with a 2.45 second average release. Not a run-first guy, right? Not the most athletic Quarterback in the league, right? But, over 23 years Tom Brady has practiced almost flawless technique. The release leader in 2023 is Tua Tagovailoa (Miami) currently at 2.37. As most of us know, Tua is having one heck of a year. He is getting rid of the ball fast and distributing it across all of the Dolphins’ offensive weapons. Tua has a pass-first DNA. Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow are tied for second averaging 2.46 seconds. Both of these guys can hurt you with their legs, but they are still pass-first DNA guys. The threat of their running is an asset to their team and a challenge to defenses, but it’s not how they butter their bread.
Sam Howell (34 sacks) at Washington, Daniel Jones (28 sacks) with the NYG, and Justin Fields (24 sacks) in Chicago are not in the top 15 in release time, but these three lead the league in sacks. I see Howell and Jones as elusive, but, pass-first guys. I’ve always felt Fields is a run-first DNA QB. There is a strong argument that ANY Quarterback with the Bears right now would be a flight first guy. But I have felt this way about Justin since his days at Ohio State. Desmond Ridder, Ryan Tannehill (kind of a surprise) and Russell Wilson are tied for fourth in sacks, each with 19. Desmond is ranked # 8 in TT, but we must consider his game plans are heavy on three step drops and very short pass lanes in an effort to keep the pressure off of him. So it’s pretty obvious there is a correlation between TT and sacks.
The Internal Clock is Ticking
Every NFL Quarterback has an “internal clock” that is processing when to release the ball while at the same time dropping back, reading defenses, and going through his progression of pass options. If the ball is not released within that 3.0 optimal time the internal clock starts warning the QB that it’s time to unload, buy more time, or flight. If a QB has a dominate pass DNA and he is not under pressure he will hold the ball to continue the progression, or if harassed he will buy more time behind the line of scrimmage. He knows his biggest value to the team is as the passer. But, if the Quarterback’s DNA dominate signature is as a runner he will frequently take off when that internal clock sends the alarm. The big problem with run-first QBs is they tend to take-off prematurely before the alarm sounds. This ruins game plans.
Which Quarterbacks Win Super Bowls?
Almost every Super Bowl QB winner, by far, has been a pass-first DNA QB. Let’s take a relevant sample size, say from 2023 back to 2000. The winning Quarterbacks have been Patrick Mahomes (more on him in a sec), Mathew Stafford, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Nick Foles, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson (more on him as well), Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Tom Brady, Brad Johnson, Tom Brady, Trent Dilfer and Kurt Warner. These are your winning Super Bowl QBs. Not a lot of sub 4.7 forty guys on that list.
Of the 24 Super Bowl winners listed above (including Brady seven times), only two are not full-blooded pass-first DNA QBs. Patrick Mahomes won Super Bowls in 2023 and 2020, and Russell Wilson in 2014. The remainder are decidedly NOT running Quarterbacks nor were they ever considered a “dual-threat,” with the possible exception of a younger Aaron Rodgers. In fact, you could argue that these Quarterbacks were in the bottom half of the mobility food chain in the NFL during their Super Bowl years. I also happen to believe that both Mahomes and Wilson have “pass first” DNAs. I primarily believe this by watching their behavior in the pocket and even while escaping pressure. They are looking to make big plays with their arms first and legs second.
The Ultimate Team Player
Why do pass-first or even pass-only DNA Quarterbacks have such a high success rate in not only getting to Super Bowls but winning Super Bowls? My belief is that the pass-first QB is wired as the ultimate team player. He completely accepts football as a team game and it takes a village, right? Super Bowl winners inherently understand they need to get every offensive teammate performing at their optimal levels. They want to deliver the football to the player for whom the play was designed. Each play is designed for success. The design stipulates which player has the highest chance of success. On a pass play the progression of the Quarterback’s read of the defense takes him to the optimum receiver based on how the defense reacts to the early development of the play. A pass-first DNA QB lives and breathes to deliver the ball to that WR, RB, or TE who becomes the designate based on the defense’s reaction. When a team knows and feels the Quarterback is in this mode they respond accordingly. They are on high octane knowing “he’s coming to me”!
Why Do You Think They Call It a SCRAMBLE?
In the alternative universe, with a run-first DNA QB the play was not designed to succeed as a scramble. At least not most scrambles. Yes, the QB draw, or boot, or even sweep are designed plays and can be very effective when set up by the game plan. But I’m talking about the QB reaction to when the platform of the called play breaks down, or even before the play breaks down. Does the Quarterback go immediately off the play or does he try and salvage the progression? Does he buy time and find someone or does he default into flight mode? I believe this behavior can have a negative effect on teammates. Sure, when a Quarterback adlibs and pulls it off with a big first down or even a score everyone is giddy. But how about the times he comes up short or coughs up the ball or runs out of time? Too much deviation from the game plan by the QB gets old with teammates, coaches and fans.
The Dual Threat: Perceived or Real?
There is a new breed of Quarterback evolving in the NFL. It is the dual-threat QB with the emphasis on the word threat as it relates to the run. It is a Quarterback who displays enough running ability to be a threat to the defensive game plan, but is still a pass-first Quarterback.
Patrick Mahomes has mastered this approach to developing a dual-threat reputation. Patrick is a very special talent with many very exciting skills as an NFL Quarterback. But, there is nothing more exciting than to see his unique creativity when delivering the football to his receivers. His traditional straight drop back reminds me of Dan Marino. His release is a blur and the arm strength is off the charts. He is one of the few (Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen come to mind) who can deliver the ball way down field without the back foot set in cement. But how about the “no-look” passes? How about the shovel passes and underhand tosses? He is a circus on spikes.
Patrick on Netflix
If you watched Patrick on the Netflix series Quarterbacks, you learned that he is also a salesman. He is always working the angles. He helps the edge rusher up off the ground, he constantly talks to the linebackers and blitzing safeties. He calls everyone “Dog.” Like “Hey Dog, thanks for laying off me,” or, “Hey dog, great play man.” Etc, etc… What he also works at is the threat of his running ability. He makes some big plays with his legs, but he’d rather not. On Netflix he talks about staying alive behind the line of scrimmage and finding the right guy in the right place at the right time. If you think of Mahomes as a runner you’re wrong. In his first Super Bowl win season (2020) he passed 588 times for 38 TDs. In that same season he rushed a mere 62 times for 308 yards and 2 TDs. In his second Super Bowl win of this past 2022-23 season he passed 648 times with 41 TDs vs 61 rushes for 358 yards and 4 TDs. He is a dual-threat with a big emphasis on threat because this “Dog” is a true-blue pass-first DNA QB.
Trevor, Joe, Jalen and Josh
Others maturing as dual-threats? We’ve already identified Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow. Both have been hurt this year so the emphasis remains on threat for them and not actually going into flight mode unless absolutely necessary. Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen are two more young, evolving dual-threat QBs. Of this group of four I perceive Hurts as the only run-first DNA guy. In 2020 he led all QBs in rushing with 784 yards and 10 TDs on 139 carries. While his passing was a pedestrian 16 TDs with 9 pics it was good enough to get the Eagles into the playoffs, where they lost the wildcard round to Tom Brady and Tampa Bay. In 2022 Jalen refined his passing while still being very effective as a runner. He posted 22 passing TDs vs only 6 pics while rushing for another 760 yards and 13 TDs. All this resulted in a 14-1 record and a trip to the Super Bowl. Hurts had a brilliant game, but ultimately lost to Mahomes and the chiefs 38-35. At this point Jalen Hurts is doing a great DNA balancing act. One question is, can he stay healthy running 150+ times per season?
Josh Allen is another QB DNA unicorn. Why not, as a QB at 6’5” and 237 lbs that runs a 4.6? Josh likes to run over or even sometimes jump over linebackers. But I still think Josh is a pass-first DNA QB. Since 2020 he has thrown for over 4,000 yards every season. He also has passed for over 35 TDs in each of those seasons. Since 2020 his teams have gone 13-3, 11-6, 13-3, and so far 4-2 in 2023. In the 2021 post-season he set the NFL record for QB rating in the post-season with a 149.0 QBR throwing for 9 TDs with zero pics. His rushing attempts since 2021 are in the 102 to 124 range although pacing substantially less this year. Deep down I believe Josh loves to distribute the ball to his teammates. Plus, I think Josh Allen will win a Super Bowl.
Do Run-First DNA QBs Miss More Time?
The young lions above, with the exception of Jalen Hurts, will first and foremost beat you by distributing the ball to their teammates. But they all present the dual-threat dilemma to defensive co-ordinators. There is a continuing discussion about whether running Quarterbacks are more susceptible to injury. Some data suggest QBs’ most common injuries are to the shoulders while in the pocket vs running downfield. But I’m not buying it. The fact is Lamar Jackson, the most gifted running QB of them all, and clearly a run-first DNA QB, has missed 5 games in each of the last two seasons due to injury. This includes being out for the Raven’s playoff game last season. Kyler Murray, another dual-threat with high run tendencies has been out of the Arizona lineup since week 14 of 2022, when he suffered a non-contact knee injury running in space downfield against the Patriots on Monday Night Football. At that point Murray had passed for 14 TDs with 7 pics while rushing for 418 yards on 88 carries. It was announced he will begin to practice with the team, but is still not activated. The Cardinals made the 5’10” Murray the #1 pick in the 2019 draft after his Heisman year at Oklahoma; a very big investment for the Cardinals.
Justin Fields Born to Run?
Justin Fields is a brilliant talent playing for the Chicago Bears. He is also getting hammered given the Bears have been 2-8 in 2021, 3-12 in 2022 and currently 1-5 this year in Justin’s 25 career starts. Justin may suffer from too much talent. He runs as well as he passes. And when the platform breaks down, as it does many times in Chicago, Justin runs for his life. In fact, he runs very well. He already holds NFL records for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game: 178 vs Dolphins in 2022, most rushing yards over a five-game span in the Super Bowl era: 568 (2022) and most consecutive games with a rushing touchdown: 6. He’s also the only QB since 1925 to score three rushing TDs over 50 yards.
Meanwhile, Justin has thrown for 35 TDS along with 27 pics. The interceptions are, frankly from personal experience, understandable given the team’s 6-25 record on his watch. He’s playing a lot of catch-up and throwing a lot of desperation Hail Marys (some are literal and some figurative). He’s also getting hit a lot. He’s been sacked 115 times and fumbled 32 times in less than 3 years. His touches include 279 rushing attempts for 1,800 yards and 11 TDs. Justin is clearly a run-first DNA QB. And why not with those results? But his number of touches are exorbitant and exposes him to injury. FYI, Justin will be out this week with a dislocated thumb.
Would You Bet the Franchise on a Run-First DNA QB?
Well, the Indianapolis Colts selected Florida’s Anthony Richardson as the fourth pick in the 2023 draft. Richardson had wowed the combine with scores that ranked him as the most athletic QB prospect in league combine history. All this at 6’4” and 244lbs with a 4.5 forty! But, Anthony Richardson had only started 13 collegiate games at Florida. He had posted passing stats that included 24 TD passes and an eye-opening 15 pics. On the other hand, Anthony rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 TDS for the Gators. The Colts had clearly drafted themselves a run-first DNA QB.
I’ve written earlier about drafting potential over performance at the QB position. And drafting a run-first DNA Quarterback with the 4th pick in the draft is about as big a risk as any NFL team can take. For the Colts the going has been slow with Anthony Richardson. After being named QB1 to start the season Anthony threw both his first TD pass and first pic in the opening game loss to Jacksonville. In game two Richardson would go out with a concussion. Back in the lineup in week 4 vs the Rams, Richardson performed admirably, bringing the Colts back from a 23 pt deficit only to lose in OT 29-23. His rushing TD marked the first time a rookie QB has scored a rushing touchdown in each of his first three games. But unfortunately, in week 5 vs the Titans, on a running play, Anthony Richardson went down with an injury to his AC joint in his right shoulder. The Colts have announced he will need surgery and miss the rest of 2023. We wish him well. Richardson’s final rookie season stats: 4 starts completing 59% of his passes for 3 TDs and I pic while rushing 25 times for 136 yards and 4 TDs. We wish Anthony and the Colts well in his recovery.
Is There a New Breed of Super Bowl Quarterbacks?
So far the apple is not falling far from the tree. For every running Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts there are still plenty of pass-first guys like Tua Tagovailoa, CJ Stroud (who set the NFL record for most passing attempts without an interception to start a career with 186), Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Mathew Stafford, Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, and yes, Brock Purdy. But the real answer is found within the reigning Super Bowl champion: Patrick Mahomes.
Patrick says “I’m faster than people think, I don’t run pretty, so people think I’m slow…” The fact is Mahomes ran a 4.8 forty at his combine tryout in 2017. That was 6th fastest. But he posted the best 20-yard shuttle time of any QB at the combine. It makes sense that the shuttle skill would help any QB extend plays while scrambling behind the line of scrimmage. And scrambling behind the LOS helps build the perception of the dual-threat.
You Can’t Make the Club in the Tub
The NFL 2023 season will include 17 games for each team played over an 18 week season. This is a marathon, people! Go to Netflix and watch the first “Quarterback” season. It is violent. These guys get hammered every week. They employ personal trainers, chiropractors, yoga instructors and sports therapists who service them in their homes after the team trainers and doctors have administered to their agonies. So who has a better chance of making it through the 17 game schedule plus the playoffs? I think it’s the QB who understands that part of his role is to stay healthy. To be in that lineup week after week. And when in the lineup, who has a better chance of survival? The QB posing the threat to run or the QB actually running and inviting high stress contact downfield? It just stands to reason if you are adding 100 extra touches that by nature are going to draw a significant crowd of violent men with bad intentions, you are inviting a higher probability of injury.
You see, this is NFL doctrine: during the season the QB1 gets all the game plan reps at practice. Or, at least 90% of the reps. The backup QB gets either none or the equivalent of one series of plays (short series). The coaching staff believes QB1 needs the reps to gel the timing on not only pass plays but the runs as well. QB1 gets it. Period. So when you see backup QBs come into a game and look… rusty? It’s because they are. They have not had the benefit of the reps to develop the timing needed to be successful. Frankly, as a backup QB I always thought it was foolish. Why not have QB2 ready? There were 68 guys who started an NFL game last year for just 32 teams. You are going to need more than 2 per team ready to play. Whenever I see a backup QB come in and look brilliant, I am wowed! Because I know how difficult that is without the benefit of practice reps.
No, I see that list of Super Bowl winning Quarterbacks keeping pretty close to the DNA of Mahomes, Brady, Stafford, the Mannings, Rodgers, Brees, et al. I would urge the guys still figuring it out, like Josh, Trevor, Joe and even Jalen to keep in mind that dual-threat just means the defense needs to think it, not see it so much. So, at the end of the 2023 season let’s take an audit of the last men standing for the playoffs and the Super Bowl. My strong guess is these Quarterbacks will have pass-first DNA all over them.
In my second year with the Atlanta Falcons, and slotted as QB2, I was inserted in a game vs the New Orleans Saints when QB1, Steve Barkowski, got banged up. We were down on the scoreboard and in desperation mode. Dropping back, I recognized man-to-man coverage, which is a great time for QB flight. I saw an opening and flew down the sidelines 19 yards! Probably the longest run ever in my football career at any level. But in the final yard I was cold-cocked by a Saints linebacker who had an angle on me that I never saw, nor did I get the name or number of the delivery vehicle. But it was the hardest hit I have ever experienced on or off a football field. The oxygen immediately vacated my lungs, the lights went out, and fireworks exploded in my brain. After I finally rolled over and regained my composure, and I was trotting back to the huddle, I vividly remember saying to myself, “Don’t ever, EVER, f@#*ing do that again!”