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How the running quarterback, and his extra rules protection, has changed the NFL

A deep dive on the data and the history of how the running quarterback has changed the NFL game.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

I did a full story on this a few years ago, but this has been in my mind lately since there are a number of teams using the running ability of their quarterback as a significant portion of their offense so far this season.

The total number of rushing yards from quarterbacks and the percentage of total rushing yards from quarterbacks both hit record high numbers in 2021. Quarterback rushing yards accounted for 15.4 percent of all rushing yards last season (9659 of 62694 yards). While the percentage of rushing TDs from QBs came down from its record high in 2020, QBs still accounted for 19.4 percent of all rushing TDs in 2021.

So far this season quarterbacks have run for 3310 yards which is 14.7 percent of the 22474 rushing yards so far this season. It’s interesting to look at the historic view shown below

QB rushing and its change over time in the NFL
Joseph Mahoney

This season QBs have run for 34 touchdowns which is 20.1 percent of the league total of 169 so far.

There was another inflection point back around the turn of the century. If you can recall that time in the NFL, there were quite a few QBs who gained significant yards on the ground. In fact there were nine QBs who ran for 300 or more yards that season and this was before Michael Vick or Vince Young was in the NFL.

Quarterback TEAM Runs Rushing Yds Rush TDs
Donovan McNabb* PHI 86 629 6
Rich Gannon*+ OAK 89 529 4
Daunte Culpepper* MIN 89 470 7
Kordell Stewart PIT 78 436 7
Jeff Garcia * SFO 72 414 4
Steve McNair* TEN 72 403 0
Shaun King TAM 73 353 5
Cade McNown CHI 50 326 3
Rob Johnson BUF 42 307 1

Those nine QBs accounted for 3867 yards on the ground and 37 touchdowns, but they had to play in an era when it was much more dangerous for a quarterback to run with the football.

There were ten QBs in the NFL last season who ran for 300 or more yards.

Quarterback Team Rushing Att Rushing Yds Rushing TDs Rushing 1D
Jalen Hurts PHI 139 784 10 56
Lamar Jackson BAL 133 767 2 48
Josh Allen BUF 122 763 6 54
Kyler Murray ARI 88 423 5 25
Justin Fields CHI 72 420 2 22
Patrick Mahomes KAN 66 381 2 25
Taysom Hill NOR 70 374 5 26
Trevor Lawrence JAX 73 334 2 22
Taylor Heinicke WAS 60 313 1 20
Justin Herbert LAC 63 302 3 28

It feels like the NFL is in a moment when a defender can get called for roughing the passer or unnecessary roughness simply by breathing hard on the QB. Its a reason why the career longevity for running QBs like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, Josh Allen, and Taysom Hill should be much longer the career lengths of some of the previous elite dual-threat QBs like Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham, Daunte Culpepper, Vince Young, Steve McNair, and Cam Newton.

So what does this mean for the 2022 Denver Broncos? Can Russell Wilson’s diminished ability as a runner be used to help the horribly struggling offense?

Let’s look at the teams that are currently doing this. There are currently seven teams who have had their QBs carry the ball 40 or more times so far this season.

Quarterback TEAM Runs Actual Runs Rush Yds Actual Rush Yds Actual YPC Rush TDs Rush 1D
Jalen Hurts PHI 77 69 293 302 4.38 6 23
Lamar Jackson BAL 56 49 451 458 9.35 2 23
Justin Fields CHI 54 49 282 285 5.82 1 18
Josh Allen BUF 47 41 257 269 6.56 2 21
Daniel Jones NYG 47 39 236 246 6.31 2 22
Kyler Murray ARI 45 40 263 268 6.70 2 17
Marcus Mariota ATL 43 38 206 211 5.55 3 14

Remember that the NFL still counts a QB kneel-downs as a run for -1 (or 0 or -2 yards). This needs to change, but there are some things that are glacially slow to change in the NFL. That is the reason for actual runs and actual rushing yards since I have removed the kneel-downs.

The fact remains that all of the seven QBs shown above are running five or so times per game, but how many of these runs are designed runs and how many are scrambles? We can find that as well. Below is a table that shows the difference between the QBs who can run when they need to scramble and the QBs who have play-callers designing plays for them to run (or potentially run).

Quarterback TEAM Actual Runs Scrambles Designed Runs % of Designed Runs % of team rush yards
Jalen Hurts PHI 69 23 46 67% 32%
Lamar Jackson BAL 49 16 33 67% 49%
Justin Fields CHI 49 32 17 35% 28%
Josh Allen BUF 41 24 17 41% 38%
Daniel Jones NYG 39 23 16 41% 25%
Kyler Murray ARI 40 17 23 58% 31%
Marcus Mariota ATL 38 14 24 63% 21%

We can see that three of these QBs are running out of necessity or opportunity (Fields, Allen and Jones) while the others are are more often running by design.

We can also see that outside of Mariota, these QBs have accounted for 25 percent or more of the rushing yards for their team. With 102 actual rushing yards on 15 carries, Russ accounts for 15.4 percent of the Bronco’s rushing yards so far this season. In fact for QBs with 100 or more actual rushing yards this season (shown below), only Jacoby Brissett has a lower percentage of his team’s overall rushing yards (11 percent - 113 of 1032). Right now Lamar Jackson has accounted for 49 percent of the Ravens rushing yards. That is pretty crazy. Even in his best years so far his legs have only accounted for roughly one third of their rushing yards.

Player Tm Actual Runs Actual Rush Yds TD 1D Team Rush Yds % of Team Run Yds
Lamar Jackson BAL 49 458 2 23 934 49%
Jalen Hurts PHI 69 301 6 23 936 32%
Justin Fields CHI 49 287 1 18 1024 28%
Kyler Murray ARI 40 268 2 17 853 31%
Josh Allen BUF 41 263 2 21 707 37%
Daniel Jones NYG 39 244 2 22 978 25%
Marcus Mariota ATL 38 211 3 14 991 21%
Geno Smith SEA 21 130 1 8 746 17%
Patrick Mahomes KAN 18 116 0 9 639 18%
Jacoby Brissett CLE 21 113 1 13 1032 11%
Joe Burrow CIN 20 117 2 9 534 22%
Russell Wilson DEN 15 102 1 5 661 15%

If we look at Russell Wilson, he has fifteen actual runs this season and 12 of them are scrambles so only three of them (20%) have been designed runs. While I am not advocating for the Broncos to make running the ball with Russ a focal point of the offense, I do think that once of twice per game would be a good way to game some relatively easy yards particularly in the red zone where this strategy works for the rest of the league that has mobile QBs. It should also be mentioned that Russell Wilson in the past has been quite good at running the ball in the red zone.

Unfortunately Russ has not really being doing many designed runs recently in the NFL. He had 37 actual runs in 2021 and 23 of those were scrambles so he only had 14 designed runs last season in 14 games. That is big change from earlier in Russ’ career when he was used on more designed runs, but this is may not be something that is wise to do very often (designed runs) with our 245 million dollar QB. In 2020 Russ had 67 actual runs, but 53 of those were scrambles. In fact Russ had the second highest numbers of scramble runs in 2020 (DeShaun Watson had 62).


Should the Broncos use Russell Wilson more often on designed runs? He has three in six games so far.

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