A football field is like a toll road -- there’s a price to pay when one travels it.
NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott pays a toll every time he takes a handoff. It’s called a tackle. Sometimes he’s hit by two, three and four defenders. NFL receiving leader Adam Thielen also pays a toll with every catch. It’s called a tackle. Catch the ball and you get hit.
But quarterbacks pay no such toll.
The NFL has done everything in its power to make football a non-contact sport for its quarterbacks. Pass rushers can’t hit them high in the pocket. They can’t hit them low. They can’t land on quarterbacks when they do sack them. Quarterbacks flushed from the pocket can throw the ball away to avoid pursuing defenders without fear of intentional grounding.
When quarterbacks do run with the football, they can slide at their discretion to avoid contact. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the line of scrimmage, 10 yards downfield or 40 yards downfield. They travel a toll-free path on the football field. The officiating bubble that protects quarterbacks in today’s NFL has emboldened them to run.
And run they have this season. There are five quarterbacks with a shot at a 500-yard rushing season. Why is that significant? Because in the first 98-year history of the NFL, there have never been more than four quarterbacks rush for 500 yards in a single season. And that was recent vintage as well in 2013.
Quarterbacks have run for decades at the college level. Those 1,000-yard seasons are not uncommon in the NCAA. But running was considered taboo for quarterbacks in the NFL because defenders are bigger, strong and faster and their hits pack more punch. Teams have paid their quarterbacks too much money to risk injuring them.
But when you can’t hit them, that gives them license to run. Two rookie quarterbacks have led the charge this season, first-round draft picks Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. Allen has rushed for 100 yards in back-to-back games and is looking to become the first quarterback in 57 years to rush for 100 yards in three consecutive games.
The last quarterback to hit that rushing trifecta was Bill Kilmer of the San Francisco 49ers in 1961 after Red Hickey invented the shotgun as a rushing offense. Yep, that Bill Kilmer. But back then he was Billy Kilmer, a 22-year-old rookie quarterback with a brand new set of wheels and a willingness to use them.
Only one other quarterback in NFL history ever rushed for 100 yards in consecutive games. It wasn’t Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, Bobby Douglass, Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick or any of the game’s other notable scramblers. It was Tobin Rote of the Green Bay Packers in 1951.
Allen rushed for 135 yards on nine carries against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 2 and 101 yards on nine carries against the New York Jets on Dec. 9. By all rights he already should have three consecutive 100-yard games. On Nov. 25 against Jacksonville, Allen rushed for 101 yards but ended the game in victory formation by taking a knee twice. Those two carries at a minus-1 yard apiece reduced his game total to 99.
Allen’s 135 yards against the Dolphins was the eighth best rushing game by a quarterback in NFL history. Only four NFL quarterbacks ever rushed for more yards in a game – Colin Kaepernick, Michael Vick, Rote and Robert Griffin III.
Jackson won the 2016 Heisman Trophy at Louisville as much for his legs as his arm. He rushed for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns that season and threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns. And he has shown a willingness to run in the NFL. He has started four games and has rushed for at least 70 yards in all of them. His best game was his first start – a 26-carry, 119-yard effort against Cincinnati.
Allen and Jackson are not alone. DeShaun Watson, Tyrod Taylor, Mitch Trubisky, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson also have had rushing games of 70 yards or more this season. Now Allen, Jackson, Cam Newton, Watson and Trubisky all have a chance to rush for 500 yards this season. With three games remaining in the regular season, Allen needs 10 yards, Jackson 25, Newton 27, Watson 90 and Trubisky 102.
(Historical footnote – it took Tom Brady seven seasons to rush for 500 career yards and 17 seasons before he could finally reach 1,000 for his career).
Only one quarterback rushed for 500 yards in a single season in the 1950s. That was Rote in 1951. But back then defenders could punish quarterbacks for using their legs with hits and tackles. They had to pay a toll for their travels. Only one quarterback rushed for 500 yards in a single season in the 1960s. That was Kilmer in 1961. There were five such 500-yard rushing seasons in the 1970s and two in the 1980s.
Tarkenton was the original scrambler with the Vikings. But he never rushed for more than 376 yards in an NFL season. Staubach also used his legs as a weapon for a Dallas team that reached five Super Bowls in the 1970s. But he never rushed for more than 343 yards in a single season. Steve Young was another notable scrambler in the 1990s with the 49ers. He only rushed for 500 yards once in his 15 NFL seasons.
Only one quarterback has ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a single NFL season – Vick in 2006. With the NFL’s emphasis of late on player safety – in particular, the safety of quarterbacks – there’s no longer a down side to a running quarterback.
Watson and Newton joined Jackson with 1,000-yard rushing seasons in college. Prescott rushed for 986 yards in a college season. Wilson has already had an 800-yard season in the NFL. Now Allen looks for his third consecutive 100-yard game Sunday against Detroit.
Vick will one day soon have company in the 1,000-yard club. The legs are there – and the rules are there to protect those legs.