Slippery QBs take different paths for Steelers, Eagles
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It is difficult to characterize Steve Young as a running quarterback. Not when he won six NFL passing titles, owns the third-highest passer rating in league history, was the first quarterback to post a triple-digit passer rating in consecutive seasons and threw a record six touchdowns in Super Bowl XXIX.
But it would not be entirely inaccurate, either.
Despite his passing prowess with the San Francisco 49ers when he managed to break records held by the legend he replaced, Joe Montana, Young was also a nimble, oily quarterback who was never afraid to venture from the pocket.
He ranks third on the NFL's all-time list of rushing yards by quarterback, right behind two quarterbacks who were known more for the plays they made with their feet than their throwing arms -- Mike Vick and Randall Cunningham.
Runner? Uh ... sure.
"It's a tremendous weapon," said Young, who rushed for 4,239 yards during his 15-year career with the 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "But the problem is, it can be a crutch away from what the job really is, and that's to play quarterback and throw the ball from the pocket.
"This is my opinion and I've been proven right -- you can't win championships just being a quarterback who runs and make plays. You have to do the job. If the quarterback ends up with the ball at the end of the play, it can be a tremendous weapon -- if you exhausted everything else. The offense needs the ball out of your hands. If the ball is in your hands and you haven't exhausted everything and you missed people, it's a problem."
To vividly highlight his point, Young might not need to look any further than the matchup today at Heinz Field.
Michael Vick, the NFL's all-time leading rusher for a quarterback, faces Ben Roethlisberger, no wallflower himself, when the Steelers (1-2) play the Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) in a 1 p.m. game that features two of the league's best escape artists.
But it is the manner in which Vick and Roethlisberger escape to make plays that differs drastically.
Vick will move from the pocket and look to continue running downfield, which is how he once rushed for a record 1,039 yards in 2006 and has totaled 5,349 rushing yards in his career. That style, though, has never produced more than two playoff victories in Vick's 10-year career.
Roethlisberger is a player who will deftly move in and about the pocket to escape pressure. He is more Fran Tarkenton than Vick, more John Elway than Cunningham or Bobby Douglass. And, like his idol Elway, he has two Super Bowl titles to vindicate his style of play.
Simply, it is the difference between a running quarterback and a mobile quarterback.
"The guy who proves me wrong is Ben," said Young, an NFL analyst for ESPN who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. "Ben, I think, doesn't necessarily love doing it smoothly. Half the time he's holding on to it and pushing people around and fiddle-faddleing back there and trying to make plays. And he's the one guy who won a championship doing the job without the religion of just throwing the ball.
"He's a unique player and somebody who I've had to kind of accept that there are anomalies, there are guys who can do special things."
Make no mistake, Roethlisberger has done that.
At age 23, he was the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and his 10 playoff victories rank eighth all time. What's more, he has the fourth-highest winning percentage (.710) in league history and ranks 10th all time in passer rating (92.9)
In addition, he comes into the game against the Eagles as one of the most proficient quarterbacks in the league, especially on third down. His passer rating of 109.2 ranks first in the AFC, and he leads the NFL in completion percentage (27 of 36, .750), yards (354), touchdowns (5) and passer rating (145.1) on third down.
The Eagles would like Vick to be more like Roethlisberger -- use his feet to create plays with his arm.
"Mike does a great job of avoiding the sack, I think we both do," Roethlisberger said. "A lot of times, because he's more dangerous of a runner, once he gets out of the pocket, he's looking to run. He can create bigger plays with his feet than I can. I'm trying to look to pass because I'm trying to get the ball into the playmakers' hands. I always thought get it to someone else, get it to someone who should be carrying the ball and running with the ball."
That, though, has always been the conundrum with Vick: He is so fast, and so athletic, that having the ball in his hands is always an attractive option, even on a team that features big-play wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy.
Once upon a time, it used to be that way with the Steelers, too, when Kordell Stewart was their quarterback. And Stewart heard many of the same things Vick continues to hear from his detractors -- that teams will never win a Super Bowl with a running quarterback.
"The safest thing you can do, and you know how to do, you know how to run," said Stewart, who started 76 games at quarterback with the Steelers from 1997-2002 and led them to two appearances in the AFC championship ('97, '01). "In your mind, the last thing you want to have to deal with is throwing an incomplete pass. If you see green grass, you're gone. You're not going to think about trying to complete a pass to a tight window.
"If it's anything close to looking foggy or where something wrong can happen, it's time to time to go to the yellow pages and let your toes do the walking."
Stewart ranks third in team history with 13,328 passing yards, 2,107 attempts and 1,190 completions, behind only Terry Bradshaw and Roethlisberger in each category.
But, before he became the starting quarterback in '97, he spent his first two seasons creating and developing the Slash position -- a multi-purpose passer/receiver/runner who was fast, strong and athletic. Stewart said he performed that role so well that it tainted people's opinion about whether he should be an NFL quarterback, believing he could be more useful to the offense as Slash.
After all, his role helped the Steelers get to the Super Bowl in the '95 season.
"The toughest thing that happened to me, I gave the fan base and the organization too much of my abilities," said Stewart, who ranks eighth in NFL history among rushing quarterbacks with 2,874 yards. "They hadn't seen anything like that before, not in an arrogant way, but it was exciting, it was fun.
"Once I displayed I could catch the football and run after the catch and we go to Super Bowl, what do you think -- everyone said, 'Why you want to play quarterback?' I get tweets today that say, 'Boy, if you were a wide receiver, you could be something special. Why didn't you do it?' That wasn't how I was raised to play football. I was raised and ingrained to play quarterback. I didn't know any other position. I was accustomed to leading the team."
The longtime knock against so-called "running" quarterbacks is that their style of play is not conducive to winning Super Bowl title. But that myth was debunked by two players who rank among the top six all-time rushing leaders for quarterbacks -- Young and Elway.
Young ranks third on the all-time quarterback rushing list with 4,239 yards, second only to Vick and Randall Cunningham, but he won one Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in '94. Young was named the MVP in that game because he threw for a record six touchdowns but also finished as the game's leading rusher with 47 yards.
Elway is sixth on that list with 3,407 rushing yards and he won back-to-back Super Bowl titles with the Denver Broncos in '97 and '98.
"[Running] is a crutch when the ball should have come out somewhere else," Young said. "It's still not what wins championship. What wins championships is delivering ball from the pocket, getting the ball out of your hands and getting it to people on time."
In today's pass-oriented league, general managers and coaches continue to frantically search for the marquee quarterback they feel is necessary to win the Super Bowl. And recent history has shown that quarterback to be the pocket-passer type -- Tom Brady (3), Roethlisberger (2), Eli Manning (2), Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
But, in the past two years, athletic quarterbacks such as Cam Newton (No. 1 overall) and Robert Griffin III (No. 2 overall) have been top draft picks. That doesn't include Russell Wilson, who was drafted No. 75 overall by the Seattle Seahawks.
Those three quarterbacks rank among the top 28 rushers in the NFC, with Griffin leading the way with 252 yards. Vick (167) is included in that group.
"The way the athletes are on the defensive line today, the mobile/running quarterback is needed and accepted more than it's ever been," Stewart said.
"It's needed nowadays. You can't say he runs too much when you have Osi Umenyiora coming off that edge. You gotta go.
"Mike Vick is trying to have pocket presence now, but if anyone can get out of trouble, he can. It's causing him to take a step back and understand it's OK to run. The same thing happened to Donovan [McNabb] in Philly. If it's time to run, run. Don't worry how it looks. Make it happen."
Young said he thought the game was morphing in that direction toward the end of his career. But, 13 years later, nothing has changed.
"If you tell someone, 'running quarterback,' that's code for he can't play," Young said. "I thought when I retired the game had changed. It was much more dynamic. It necessitated someone who could do the job and move around, and I was wrong. There was Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for the next 12 years or so.
"With guys like Cam Newton and RG3, when you got a quarterback who does the job and moves around, it takes a lot of time and it takes discipline to not use the running part of your game as a crutch."
It's a crutch the Eagles -- and maybe Vick -- would like to discard.
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am