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Run, quarterback, run!

Welcome to the golden age of running quarterbacks in the NFL!

Baltimore Ravens v Washington Football Team Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The recent release of Cam Newton by the Patriots marks what could be the end of Cam Newton’s career as a starting QB in the NFL. Newton is listed at 6-5, 245 pound, and he is always a threat to run the ball. He has averaged 7.7 carries per start during his NFL career.

Newton is already, by far, the NFL career leader in total rushes among quarterbacks with 1,071 carries. He will most likely not hold that title for too long with Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson both projected to blow past him in the near future. Wilson currently has 803 carries. Lamar Jackson currently only has 482 (which puts him outside of the top 10 all-time), but he has been getting 160 per season (about 10 per game). If he can avoid the injuries that derailed Newton’s career, he should finish with many more than 1,100 carries.

Newton is currently second in NFL history in quarterback rushing yards. Michael Vick is the career leader with 6,109. Only three active quarterbacks are in the top 10, Newton, who is second with 5,398 yards, Wilson, who is fourth with 4,506 yards and Aaron Rodgers, who is tenth with 3,271 yards. Lamar Jackson already has 2,906 despite only have been a starting qb in the NFL for two and a half seasons. Barring serious injury, Jackson will move into the top 10 this season. He is averaging about 1,100 yards rushing per regular season when he’s the main starting quarterback.

Three Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks are in the top 10 in carries and yards: Steve Young, Fran Tarkenton and John Elway. The HoF QB who is in the top 10 for QB rushing TDs is Steve Young, who finished his career with 43, which is good for second all-time. Newton, with 70 is strongly in first place and should stay there for a long time. With 70 rushing touchdowns, Newton is currently 32nd all-time and is the only player in the top 100 who did not play running back during his NFL career. Jackson has 19 right now and is averaging about six per season. At that pace, it would take nine seasons to surpass 70 rushing touchdowns.

Jackson is currently 24 years old and if he can avoid serious injuries that hurt his ability to run the ball, he could realistically have another 10+ years of high level QB play in the NFL. Even if he runs less as he ages, he should easily set the records for quarterback carries, yards and maybe rushing TDs.

Another QB who currently uses his legs as an offensive weapon is Kyler Murray. While he was the first overall pick like Newton, Murray is almost the anti-Newton, in that he is tiny. Murray is listed at 5-10, 207 pounds, but that is generous. Murray, in many ways, is like some of the great running backs who would use their quickness and elusiveness to avoid big hits (and the resultant injuries). Emmitt Smith was great at this. It seemed like he never took a hard hit despite thousands of NFL carries. Cam Newton preferred to used his size and power since his elusiveness was limited. This led to many big hits.

In 2020, Murray ran 133 times for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns. In fact, QB rushing touchdowns were at an all-time high in 2020 (at least going back 30 years). Oddly enough, a QB has never led the NFL in rushing TDs despite years when eleven (2015), twelve (2013) or thirteen (2017 and 2014) rushing TDs led the league.

There were 126 rushing TDs by QBs in 2020. In other words, quarterbacks accounted for 23.7 percent of all rushing touchdowns in 2020. Compare that to 1993 when QBs accounted for only 7.2 percent of all rushing touchdowns. Both the percentage of touchdowns and the total number of QB rushing touchdowns were at historic high numbers for the NFL in 2020. Admittedly my data gets less accurate before 2004 since espn.com only goes back to 2004 for full league individual rushing data and PFR doesn’t list positions for every player (which is frustrating when trying to tabulate something like all QB rushing TDs). See the full data set below - back to 1990, but I have the data all the back to 1970. There were only 21 QB rushing TDs in 1970 (in 14 regular season game) compared to the 126 in 2020 (in 16 regular season games).

Year Total TDs Rushing TDs by QB % by QB QB rushing TD Leader Rushing TDs Rushing TD leader Rushing TDs
2020 1403 532 126 23.7% Cam Newton 12 Derrick Henry 17
2019 1244 447 80 17.9% Josh Allen 9 Derrick Henry 16
2018 1286 439 71 16.2% Josh Allen 8 Todd Gurley 17
2017 1121 380 66 17.4% Cam Newton 6 Todd Gurley 13
2016 1229 443 65 14.7% Tyrod Taylor 6 LeGarrette Blount 18
2015 1207 365 61 16.7% Cam Newton 10 4-way tie 11
2014 1187 380 47 12.4% Russell Wilson 6 DeMarco Murray and Marshawn Lynch 13
2013 1214 410 55 13.4% Cam Newton 6 Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch 12
2012 1158 401 65 16.2% Cam Newton 8 Arian Foster 15
2011 1145 400 66 16.5% Cam Newton 14 LeSean McCoy 17
2010 1150 399 40 10.0% Michael Vick 9 Arian Foster 16
2009 1139 429 45 10.5% Aaron Rodgers 5 Adrian Peterson 18
2008 1122 476 48 10.1% Aaron Rodgers 4 DeAngelo Williams 18
2007 1106 386 40 10.4% Cleo Lemon 4 LaDainian Tomlinson 15
2006 1072 424 44 10.4% Vince Young 7 LaDainian Tomlinson 28
2005 1075 431 44 10.2% Michael Vick 6 Shaun Alexander 27
2004 1148 416 39 9.4% Aaron Brooks 4 LaDainian Tomlinson 17
2003 1081 427 58 13.6% Jeff Garcia 7 Priest Holmes 27
2002 1154 460 65 14.1% Daunte Culpepper 10 Priest Holmes 21
2001 1000 365 52 14.2% Chris Weinke 6 Shaun Alexander 14
2000 1046 412 58 14.1% Daunte Culpepper 7 Marshall Faulk 14
1999 1028 363 47 12.9% Steve McNair 8 Stephen Davis 17
1998 1037 379 45 11.9% Steve Young 6 Terrell Davis 21
1997 1001 384 49 12.8% Kordell Stewart 11 Terrell Davis 15
1996 990 364 36 9.9% Steve Young 4 Terry Allen 21
1995 1048 385 45 11.7% Steve Bono 5 Emmitt Smith 25
1994 923 340 38 11.2% Steve Young 7 Emmitt Smith 21
1993 821 304 22 7.2% Jeff Hostetler 5 Marcus Allen 12
1992 849 333 34 10.2% Randall Cunningham 5 Emmitt Smith 18
1991 869 358 32 8.9% John Elway 6 Barry Sanders 16
1990 952 377 35 9.3% Rodney Peete 6 Derrick Fenner/Cleveland Gary 14

In 2020 quarterbacks also accounted for 14.3 percent of all rushing yards which was also the highest value in league history. The 8,697 QB rushing yards was also a historic high and more than twice as many QB rushing yards as we had in 2009.

Year Total Rushing Yds QB Rushing yds % of rushing yards by a QB
2020 60868 8697 14.3%
2019 57806 6621 11.5%
2018 58601 6716 11.5%
2017 56170 6231 11.1%
2016 55763 5616 10.1%
2015 55724 5694 10.2%
2014 57002 5690 10.0%
2013 57795 5708 9.9%
2012 59349 5717 9.6%
2011 59978 4346 7.2%
2010 58607 3429 5.9%
2009 59739 2956 4.9%
2008 59370 3538 6.0%
2007 56790 2638 4.6%
2006 60061 3930 6.5%
2005 57583 3406 5.9%
2004 59709 4008 6.7%
2003 60341 4358 7.2%
2002 59459 5980 10.1%
2001 55440 5657 10.2%
2000 55829 7213 12.9%
1999 52819 5560 10.5%
1998 54093 4970 9.2%
1997 54260 4589 8.5%
1996 52306 3594 6.9%
1995 51886 3608 7.0%
1994 46710 3376 7.2%
1993 49295 3827 7.8%
1992 49509 4232 8.5%
1991 48237 3251 6.7%
1990 51012 4953 9.7%

Even elite quarterbacks who can run tend to run less later in their careers. This is mostly because of their value to the team and the risk of injury on a running play. In other words, their coaches would rather punt than have their starting quarterback get injured trying to run over a defender for a first down. This has been mitigated some by the rules protecting all players from big hits, but, in theory, quarterbacks lose many of their “quarterback protections” when they become runners.

With the rise of a group of young athletes at quarterback in the NFL, guys like Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, who are just as adept at throwing the ball as they are at running the ball. We could be in for a long golden era of “dual-threat” NFL quarterbacks.

Keep in mind that top 10 quarterbacks in rushing yards accounted for 5,336 rushing yards in 2020. For comparison the top 10 running running backs in rushing yards accounted for 12,094 yards.

Poll

What do you expect to happen to the percentage of rushing TDs and rushing yds from QBs in 2021

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    stay at 2020 levels (historic highs)
    (42 votes)
  • 23%
    increase to new historic highs
    (39 votes)
  • 42%
    decrease somewhat but stay above standard levels from the last decade
    (71 votes)
  • 5%
    decrease to the same level as the last decade
    (10 votes)
  • 2%
    decrease back down to levels from 2004-2010
    (5 votes)
167 votes total Vote Now